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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Adventure

Lion of the Sands

 

The Lion of the Sands

[Book 1
The Long Journey of Agymah Chahine]

Robert Sullivan

Copyright © 2015 by Robert Sullivan

Dedicated to Jean and Bob Sullivan. We keep
you in our thoughts and our hearts, always.

Beware the Lion of the Sands.”

 

Bedouin Proverb
20th Cent BC

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

1. My Father Tells a Fearful Tale

2. The Army of the Pharaoh

3. A Terrible Defeat

4. God of Gods

5. Under a Boiling Sun

6. We Journey to Heliopolis

7. The Pillars of Hercules

8. By the Coast of Maroc

9. The Djinn of Envy

10. Giants of the Deep

11. A Great Storm

12. Arks of Ice

13. Safe Harbour

14. Of Golden Isles

15. Men of Earth and Straw

16. Douwwi and Pasine

17. Farewell to Buta

[City of Memphis
Kingdom of Egypt
1912 BC]

Part I – My Father Tells a Fearful Tale

(Here is written the first night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Imhotep, Son of Shariff, in the City of Memphis in the 33rd year of Kheper-Ka-Re. So it is written in the month of Abib in the Season of the Harvest.)

 

My name is Agymah Chahine. I am an old man. I believe that I have seen three score and five summers. But my wife Eti, to whom I have been joined for so long, says that she has seen only two score and ten summers. Now I recall that when first we met, I had only two more summers than she, so it must be that I am confused. For in my travels I have journeyed to far places, where in some years it has seemed that there were two summers, and in some years two winters, or even more. Perhaps then I am not so old. Perhaps my age is only a little more than that of the two score and ten summers of my wife. Or, as my old friends Nedemeb and Naguib would say, perhaps that of an egret barely out of its nest. But of course they jest. For I am no longer a young man. It is time to tell this story.

 

For these many years my daughter Khuyb, she of waspish tongue and flashing brown eyes, has been asking that I complete a journal. As a child she heard of my adventures with the armies of the Pharaoh, of the Lion of the Sands, of its terrible ferocity, of our journey to the far side of the world and, finally, of our journey home. It is a strange tale, that is certain, and an unlikely one. For the dangers were great, and we placed ourselves at great peril so many times that our survival must have been ordained by the Gods. It was written.

 

And so it is, on this 7th night of the month of Abib, in the Season of the Flood, that I sit with young Imhotep, son of Shariff and Nebettah, and friend to my daughter Khuyb. Imhotep is a scribe and will capture my story as I speak. He says this will take many nights and will likely cost a goat or two. Of course it will. He is a businessman. He has a sharp eye this one, not at all like his parents. I can see that he will go far.

 

I have decided that I will start my story in my sixteenth year, the year in which so many of my adventures began. So have I always believed. For I had lived an idyllic and peaceful life, free of misfortune or want, with good food and the kind words of my mother and my father to guide me. As I cast my mind back I see still my father’s face, in the flickering light of the fire, as he spoke earnestly with us, telling us yet again of the dangers of the terrible plague that had come down the valleys from the Empty Quarter during the 4th year of our Pharaoh, Senusret I. I did not know it then, but the idyllic and peaceful days of my early life would not come again. I would look back in later years and wonder at my youth and the peace and tranquility that had passed forever.

 

We sat in a ring upon the floor, I and my brothers, Khanefer, Djosur and Mekhu, our grandmother’s woven rug beneath. My father sat upon a chair, made by his own hand. My mother, Takemet, sat next to my father. My father’s name was Suad, which means ‘he of slender means’. Now it was true that my father’s father had been a poor farmer and seller of grain on the banks of the Nile, far to the south, near the land of the Nubians. But he had taken his family north to Abydos where he became prosperous. And it was also true that my father, after a hard but much loved childhood, had also bettered himself, leaving Abydos in his thirteenth year and journeying to Thebes to become an apprentice to an aged furniture maker of the name of Hosni. My father worked long and hard for the furniture maker and, after many years, was able to marry and settle in Memphis. Here he opened the doors of his own business, and built a large house with four rooms and a courtyard with a date palm. He also raised four sons, all of who learned well at the temple school. My father, as it was with his father, was no longer ‘he of slender means’.

 

Our windows were shuttered, made fast with bolts of wood. The two doors to our house were closed, strong wooden bolts thrown across each to hold it safe. Outside I could hear the wind moaning against the tiles, and the whisper of sand scratching at our doors. The flickering light of the fire painted my father’s face in patches of gold and yellow, giving to it the look of a mask, a head with no body, floating in the darkness. It was a frightening tale that he told. One that you would not speak of to your children at their bedtime. Not unless it was to assure their salvation. And my father assured us it was for this reason that he spoke to us, that he did not wish to cause us fear, but that he wished to warn us, to prepare us, for the terrors that may come. Needless to say he succeeded in terrifying everyone almost to death. We had heard such frightening tales before, at the souq, or while drawing water at the well. And while we knew a thrill of fear as we gossiped at the souq, when our father spoke to us of such terrors it caused our blood to freeze.

 

In the years that had passed, more than two or three, we had heard terrible stories from the Great Sand Desert and beyond. My father called it the Empty Quarter, that part of the land where no man or beast could live. Where the dust devils take a strong man and within the day leave him dried and shriven like the husks of corn we hang from the roof beams. Where the Djinn walk in the shadows, their eyes black and empty, their jaws hungry with broken teeth and shattered bone. Where even the Gods turn away, a land of rock and stone and sand, so hot in the day that a camel’s feet will blister and crack. And so cold at night that the water in your goatskin might turn to ice. Truly, a terrible place. But not so terrible as the danger that it spawned.

 

Some stories were carried to us by the Bedouin, the desert people, they that live in the shifting sands, their lives ever dependent upon their animals and the water of each distant oasis. Other stories came from travelers from the south and the west. The Dervishes, their clothes whirling about them as they spin and bob in their strange dances. The black, shining Nubians, their skins lumpy with strange patterns, which for some reason they find beautiful, their eyes and teeth yellow and staring, their heads shaven or coated in dark curls and, often, painted red with ochre and mud. I feared the Nubians at that time. But then I did not know them. That came later.

 

I remember best a tale told to us by the old Bedouin, one afternoon early in my sixteenth year, perhaps two or three moons before my father spoke with us. The Bedouin and his family had journeyed from the west. They had been six moons in the desert, moving from waterhole to waterhole, gathering dates, living from the milk and meat of their goats. The family was greater than three score in number and had many children of all ages. The group clustered together near the well, the women with their eyes turned away, the children close. The men stood around them in a loose circle, their faces dark and menacing, their hands close to the axes hanging at their belts. The animals were tethered nearby but they did not settle. They were wild eyed and nervous, pulling at their tethers and pawing the earth. They were fearful. Just as the family was fearful. And when the old Bedouin spoke I too began to fear. For they had seen a terrible thing.

 

Two moons earlier, in the distant valley of the Kush, the group had spent several nights at a small waterhole on the road to the oasis of Qu’um. They had planned to make their camp at the oasis but the spring at the waterhole, though slow to fill a gourd, gave water that was clean and sweet. And so they had stayed. And they knew now that if they had not stopped that night at the waterhole, but had journeyed on to the oasis, then it was certain that a fearful death had awaited them. It was written in their eyes.

 

The waterhole was but a short distance from Qu’um. At most a ride of half a day on the dry watercourse that stretched along the valley floor and across a wide fan of sand that emerged onto the desert plain. At night they could see the flicker of light from the fires of Qu’um and, if the wind was from the west, they could sometimes hear the soft beat of a drum. The old Bedouin said that they were sitting upon their rugs, on the evening of their second night at the waterhole, facing the soft breeze, their meal of dates and goat meat completed, serene with tea and hookah, when they heard the first screams. The terrible cries came faintly on the wind, full of pain, causing all in the family to leap to their feet. In the distance they could see bright lights and fires burning, more than usual. The camels became restless and began to bray and pull on their tethers. The children awoke and began to cry and the women ran to them. Then it came.

 

The old Bedouin said it was the shriek of the demons of the night, that the air shivered around them, that their beasts began screaming, and several were able to tear free of their ropes and run into the darkness. He said that the sounds grew until they seemed to come from every direction, from every dune, and every gully, and that the very air itself shook. It was as if the earth had split asunder and the Gods had freed the demon spawn. The family stood as if rooted in the ground, the fear so heavy in their hearts that they could not move, their bodies as if made of stone. And then came the smell of the charnel house. One of the women fell to the ground, coughing and choking, her meal spilling from her throat into the sand. She was followed quickly by two others while several men also covered their mouths. For the wind was filled with the stench of death. A vile smell. That of a thousand dead animals. So strong that it forced itself into your mouth and nose and touched your throat as if with the dung of the hyena. The old Bedouin also fell to his knees and brought forth his last meal.

 

His eyes were red and weeping as his told his story. And as he spoke, in whispers, he cast his eyes about, sweeping his head from side to side as if he feared attack from every quarter. I saw, too, that the other men watched in the same strange manner, looking to the tops of the dunes in the west, to the low hills in the east. What are they looking for I wondered as I felt my skin crawl upon my body? Why is it that they are so fearful? The old Bedouin’s beard was stained and red, perhaps from eating too many of the leaves and nuts of the betel tree. He did not stop rubbing it as he spoke and I could see that his fingers were thick and twisted, the knuckles rough and lumpy from years of pulling ropes tight in the dark cold of the desert mornings, the nails brown and cracked. He did not appear to be an old man for he stood tall and strong. But his face was old. He had seen too much.

 

The family watched in fear until the distant fires died, and no more cries or screams could be heard in the darkness. The terrible smell departed, as if blown on the wind, though it clung still to the cloth of their djellabas and to the eaves of the tent. The family sat unmoving throughout the night, their robes pulled close around them as the faint, thin moon passed across the sky and the stars rolled through the heavens, the fire a ruin of cold embers. They huddled close for warmth for, while they craved the heat of a fire, they did not wish to provide a beacon for the evil that had taken Qu’um.

 

The family rose as one with the sun and, after many words and much disagreement, decided they must approach Qu’um. They knew a terrible fate had befallen Qu’um, but they knew also that it was their duty to provide aid to the folk of the oasis. And so they packed their tents and rugs and set off, reluctantly, towards the dark pillars of smoke that rose high in the morning sky. As they approached the oasis they saw that it had been destroyed. And they heard the growls and yapping of jackals and hyenas so they knew a great foreboding. For this reason, as they came closer to the oasis, the women and children were kept back, protected by a handful of younger boys, while the men and older boys went forward. The old Bedouin said that the oasis had been quite beautiful, with a number of palms that gave many dates, a deep, clear spring that sent forth sweet green water in winter and summer, and large mud brick houses that remained cool in summer and warm in winter. Some twenty families had lived there. But its beauty was gone forever.

 

As they stepped down the slope of the last dune towards the oasis, one of the men cried out and pointed. In the sand in front of them was the torn body of a man. They saw terrible wounds. The sand was dark with blood that slowly blackened and dried in the hot desert sun, the hum of the black desert flies beginning to fill the air. No other sound could they hear, not even the wind. In their nostrils they smelled a strange but familiar smell, that of spilled blood, one known too well by the men and, though strange to the boys who had not known death other than that of the odd goat, as one to them as their mother’s milk.

 

The oasis was small, its shape that of a gourd. The houses formed a half circle near to the narrow end, creating a small open area. But all was in ruins. The dwellings had been destroyed, their walls and doors broken, the roofs fallen. Many were burned and blackened, smoke still rising slowly from the ashes. Of the date palms only three stood, untouched. All others were broken sticks, snapped at the root or at mid point of the trunk. Some of these too had been burned. The area in front of the houses was filled with broken furniture and blackened timber. And everywhere lay broken bodies. The Bedouin watched as hyenas and jackals ran from body to body, tearing away pieces and snapping at each other, the hyena laugh strangely muted in the silence. One animal ran from the oasis, dragging the remains of a child.

 

The old Bedouin said that they knew they must go into the ruins of the houses, so to provide aid to those who may lie wounded within. But they found it difficult to go forward. They knew what they would find. And so they stood, silent and staring, for a long time, the taste of death on their tongues, the sounds of death an echo in their ears. Finally they began to search the ruined oasis, looking within the fallen houses and in the surrounding sands. Of the twenty families, almost five score in number, they found not one alive. All had perished. And more horrible than can be imagined, they found no body in a single piece. All were torn apart as if from great violence. Many were beheaded, many torn asunder. All had limbs missing, though some of this was perhaps the work of jackals and hyenas. The men muttered to themselves. What could have happened? What evil had been done here? And who, or what, had done it? They whispered short prayers to the Gods, asking for protection, and that they might soon return to their families and take them to the safety of a large town.

 

It was a heart-wrenching task that they saw before them. They collected the dead and placed them together inside one of the less damaged houses. There they would burn the dead and send their spirits to the afterlife. It was not according to the teachings of the priests but they could do no more. It was as they began this sad task that they came upon the strange animal. One of the men had ventured to the west of the oasis to retrieve one of the fallen. What he saw when he crested the small dune but a small distance from the oasis made him cry out in terror. All others in the group rushed to join him, as much in fear as in curiosity.

 

They gathered at the top of the dune and there in the shallow valley before them lay the body of an enormous Beast. But what sort of Beast? It lay upon its side, a spear jutting from its left eye. Around it a pack of jackals and hyenas fought, their heads deep in the flesh of its underbelly, ripping and tearing then running off with their jaws trailing long strands of intestine or other horrible things. The Bedouin did not draw any closer but they could see that the animal was huge, much larger than a camel, larger even than five camels. The carcass was covered in blood and swarming with scavengers but still fearsome to the eye. Its head was as large as a small dhow, the jaws open in a terrible grimace, showing long yellow fangs and a purple tongue; its body was as long as that of three oxen, the hide thick and plated; its legs were larger even than the pillars of the temple, corded with muscle with great, cloven feet. Even from where they stood atop the dune they could see the claws, almost a cubit in length. And the huge sheath of plates behind the head. The animal was terrifying, even in death. They had never seen anything like it.

 

It was clear that the animal, if that is what it was, was dead. Perhaps one of the defenders of the oasis had flung a lucky spear in the last moments of his life, striking the Beast in the eye and wounding it such that, after tearing him apart, it dragged itself away to die. The old Bedouin said he did not think it the jackals or hyenas that pulled it down. They are carrion feeders he said. They come only for the dead. They do not often attack the living, not unless they are near to death. And this Beast, this animal, was so large that even near death it would be a fearsome opponent. The man, or woman, who had made that last well aimed but desperate thrust may have lived for but a moment. The Beast would have taken much longer to die.

 

Was this animal the cause of all the death they had seen? Did it strike down the dwellers at the oasis and tear them limb from limb? If so, from whence did it come? Qu’um was on the edge of the Empty Quarter and only fools or thieves ventured further. To the west lay nothing but endless seas of sand and stone, dune upon dune marching forward from the horizon, each one steep and treacherous, each peak impossibly high, the temperatures in the middle of the day so hot as to cause fingernails to split and the tongue to clove to the roof of the mouth, a sea of sand and rock that would take a strong caravan more than thirty days to cross, thirty days without water. So from what black halls of horror did the Beast spring? It was a question for which they had no answer.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the first night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – for he has fallen asleep – scribed by Imhotep, Son of Shariff, in the City of Memphis in the 33rd year of Kheper-Ka-Re. These words are written in the Month of Abib in the Season of the Harvest.)

Part II – The Army of the Pharaoh

(Here is written the second night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Imhotep, Son of Shariff, at the house of Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the 33rd year of Kheper-Ka-Re. So it is written in the month of Abib in the Third Season of Shemu.)

 

And so we sat at the feet of our father, on that night so long ago, and he told us of the coming plague. And of what might be done about it. He was very serious and we talked for many hours of things we might do. But, in truth, we did not know our enemy. I do not think that anyone quite knew the enemy at that time. Perhaps only the Pharaoh and his armies. For they had been fighting the Beast for many moons, greater than a score, beating it back at the far reaches of the nation, the soldiers of the Pharaoh dying in their thousands as they faced a ferocity and viciousness never before known to man.

 

My father told us a little of these things, all that he knew. He told us that the Pharaoh’s armies had pitched their tents in the far west of the country, deep within the Empty Quarter. The Pharaoh had received early warnings of the approaching plague, a terror that had sprung unknown and unforeseen from the forests of the south. For longer than 15 moons the Pharaoh’s armies fought the plague. But it spread like wildfire, tearing through the communities and farmlands to the south and west and leaving them desolate of all life and hope. Survivors had fled, terrified, to the larger villages, or the sea ports in the north, and raised the warning. Yet barely had they arrived that the plague had followed, overrunning the small legions that defended the villages and killing everyone and everything that remained.

 

It was called a plague. And rightly it was a plague. But a plague of great difference to those that we have known. We have seen the sky filled with grasshoppers, that ravenous insect of the south. In some years, when sufficient rain and great warmth have combined, the grasshoppers have come. They have come in their countless hordes and devoured our grain and our vegetables. They devoured anything that they could settle upon. Even our clothing has not been spared. We have seen the terrible rotting sickness that afflicts the unclean, and seen them banished to the wilderness, their faces falling away in pieces, their limbs crooked and broken, their toes and fingers black and stinking. This is truly a terrible disease and one that our physicians cannot heal. We have seen the strange lumps that appear, as if by magic, across the bodies of our children, their skin so hot to the touch as to be of a furnace, their small bodies wracked with so much pain and suffering, the lumps bursting and weeping with yellow pus. We have seen them die a wretched death from this strange illness, brought to our shores, as told by the priests and physicians, by sailors who have known an unholy union with the sirens of the deep. Again we can only watch as our loved ones pass from us.

 

But all of these plagues are of the body or of the earth, no matter their origin. We fought the grasshoppers by locking our granaries and closing our doors and windows. We fought the rotting disease by banishing those who transgressed. This was cruel but it was done to protect the many. We fought the dreadful lumps disease with ointments and hot baths and, with time, the battle was won. But this time it was a plague unlike any that we had seen, a plague sent by demons, a plague of animals so mighty and so terrible that no man could stand before them, a plague of thousands upon thousands, streaming across the land and destroying all that lay in their path. The Bedouin called it the Lion of the Sands. My father called it, simply, the Beast.

 

My father said the plague was too fearful, too mighty, too vast to contain. That part of the nation larger than the size of the whole of Fayoum had been laid waste, and stripped of life. He said that the Pharaoh was raising new taxes to equip the army to better repel the plague. And that one report from the battle said that five thousand and more of the Beasts were seen in attack. We looked to each other in fear. No army upon the earth could prevail against such numbers. For it was said that each Beast was the equal of a score of men in full armour. Nay. Two score.

 

I asked my father from whence did the Beast come. And why did it come? My father’s face glowed yellow in the light of the fire as he spoke to us. It came from the far south he said, further even than the lands of the Nubians or the Dervishes. From a land thick with trees. Trees so plentiful and so closely grown with vines and reeds as to hide all manner of beast and bird. He said that the priests had prayed to Thoth, he of all heka and knowledge, and they had seen a vision, a vision of a land once rich and overflowing with bounty, now stripped of life by the Beast, so bare of sustenance that nothing could live, so bare that at last the Beast itself must leave, moving north in its legions, destroying all before it until at last it came to the land of Egypt.

 

Now it should be known that we lived under the reign of Pharaoh Senusret I, who came to power in the 21st year of the 12th Dynasty. The Pharaoh brought a common touch to his reign, more so than the pomp and splendour of the Old Kingdom. He did not seek to mimic the mighty pyramids of the past, but chose a path that brought him closer to his subjects. For this he was revered. He was not regarded as a warlike or aggressive Pharaoh and was loved as a fair and just ruler. But, although the Pharaoh was a quiet man, we did not realise that he was also blessed with the stubbornness of the ox. When the plague came to the land of Egypt he chose to fight, not to flee. Such was his nature. And this was how my adventure began.

 

  • * *

 

On the 16th day of the moon of Mshir, in the 5th year of Senusret I, men of the Pharaoh’s army came to our door and struck the wood loudly with the hilts of their swords. We knew why they came, for news is swift in the souqs. And bad news most swift. The Pharaoh’s army came seeking recruits in the battle against the Plague of the Desert. Each family answered the Pharaoh’s call with a single son. And because I was a young man, unmarried, with a strong back and of the right age, they had come for me. My brothers were spared and for this my mother wept. But she also wept for me.

 

It was but three moons past that our father had spoken with us and, in the days thereafter, the stories from the market became more terrible with each day. The merchants were nervous. Some packed their goods and set off for the Port of Merimbda in the north. Others lingered, greedy for any morsel they could prise from unwitting and, often, unwilling buyers, but becoming more worried by the day. Even the women did not gather at the well so much, instead rushing quickly to and fro, gathering their daily needs and casting watchful eyes at their children. A dark pall of fear seemed to lay itself upon the city. The traders and Bedouin that came to the city spoke of an army in retreat, of whole towns laid waste and thousands dead, of the fearful scourge that travelled so quickly across the country, striking with terrible ferocity and sparing none. Some said that all was lost.

 

I did not let these thoughts confuse me. I knew that I must answer the Pharaoh’s call. I went forth, on that night so long ago, and joined with a large throng of other men, young men who did not fear the need to die in service of the Pharaoh. This was a plague upon our nation that must be met with courage and strength. I, as it was with many of my countrymen, was willing to follow our Pharaoh down that fearful path.

 

We formed in the large square beside the Temple of Osiris. The Centurions shouted rudely at us until we had formed a large phalanx, which seemed to please them. They marched us out of the city to the army camp on the edge of the sands. The camp contained many tents, laid out in straight lines to catch the morning sun. One of the Centurions said there were ten thousand new men at the camp. I was pleased to see that many of my friends had also joined the Pharaoh’s army. As a small boy I had attended temple instruction with Naguib, the two Omars, Heqaib, Isesi and Minkaf. I saw Naguib from a distance, his huge nose and the purple stain that spread across the right side of his face marking him in the crowd. I ran over and embraced them all and, by good fortune, we all managed to secure a tent together. It was a happy reunion. If only we had known the perils that lay before us.

 

  • * *

 

Our training was swift and brutal. We did not speak of it but we knew the haste was borne of the battles in the west. The army was awash with rumour and each day brought news. Of battles lost, of many men dead or injured, of further advances by the Beast. But never did we waver. Our Centurions drove us mercilessly, until we fell upon our blankets with exhaustion, unable even to eat before sleeping. But with each day our strength grew. And with it our confidence. And the weapons they gave to us. Never had we seen such weapons. Huge spears of bronze, their tips so sharp as to pierce armour, their weight such that a strong man might barely lift them. Long bows, as tall as a man, strung with cured hide cut in thin strips and rolled to form a plaited cord. Arrows that were the height of a man, and made of wood and feathers with a bronze barb almost a cubit in length. Each bow could throw the arrow five hundred cubits, further than any other weapon. The barb on each arrow was curved and notched and in the spaces we fitted pitch and potions. We would burn and poison the Beast with our arrows, and pierce its hide with our spears.

 

But there was ill news from the battlefront. Though the cohorts went forth with the new weapons, still they retreated before the Beast. One report said that ten thousand men had died in a single battle. We knew this to be untrue as it would be a full fifth of the Pharaoh’s men. So we believed. You can imagine our horror when the Centurion told us that indeed ten thousand had died. He said that the army had lost thirty thousand men in the battle with the Beast, and that the whole of the army that remained was not greater than thirty thousand. Many new men were joining the army but they died more quickly under the claws of the Beast than could be trained by the Centurions. I must be true and say that my heart turned cold at this news.

 

As we marched from the camp to the battlefront we passed the wounded. They travelled on foot and in carts and wagons, many bandaged, many without limbs, some with terrible scars and weeping wounds. It seemed that their number was without end. We looked to each other and wondered. How many men would be needed to kill the Beast? How many years? Perhaps the Beast could not be defeated. Perhaps the Gods had decreed that we die like our comrades, bravely but without purpose, that the evil of the Beast was unbreakable. I felt the fear rise within me though I fought it back. Around me I saw those same doubts and fears in the eyes of my comrades.

 

We were twenty day’s march from the city, nearing the edge of the Empty Quarter, when we heard the sound of battle. We were tired, the sun turning our armour into heated plates, our feet blistered from the rough thongs of our sandals, our legs and shoulders aching from the weight of armour and weapons as we climbed the endless dunes. Our destination was the latest battlefront in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, in the Valley of the Winds, to which the Pharaoh’s army had retreated after many defeats. But at last there had come good news. For it seemed that the mountains and gullies did not suit the Beast as did the open spaces of the desert. It could not move with ease among the sharp rocks of the mountains. Our Centurion had news of two battles, that the Pharaoh’s line had held, using the rocks and the broken ground to fight the Beast and, it was said, trap and kill many. At his words our spirits were lifted and we cheered and held our weapons high. Soon it would be our turn. Soon we would turn the Beast, and defeat it.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the second night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – for he has drunk much wine and become difficult and flatulent – scribed by Imhotep, Son of Shariff, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox.)

Part III – A Terrible Defeat

(Here is written the third night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Imhotep, Son of Shariff, at the house of Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the 33rd year of Senusret I, Pharaoh of all Egypt. Khuyb grinds ink and prepares papyrus).

 

We were a full day’s march from the Valley of the Winds but in the distance we saw smoke, tall black spirals against the white desert sky. The clash of weapons came faint upon the wind with the roar of many men, and above it, like the howl of the desert Djinns from whence it came, the screams of the Beast. I felt my heart turn in my chest and my body turn to ice and, for a short moment in the sun, I again doubted our success. I wondered too of my comrades. Did they feel as did I? For we did not know of the test we were to face in the next hours. As I look back I know that it was better that we did not know, for what we were soon to face would turn men’s hair white and their faces to those of older men.

 

At the sounds of battle our Centurions formed us into cohorts of two hundred men, spear carriers to the fore, archers and slingsmen in the centre, drums to the rear. As the drums began to beat, a deep, steady throb, we began to move forward, at greater speed than we had marched but not a full run, all men in step with the beat of the drums. The crash of our weapons and feet and the pounding of the drums echoed off the hills to the sides of the valley. We felt another surge of excitement. There were two score cohorts marching in step. What could withstand this mighty army? What could withstand these weapons or these many brave men? As Naguib and I were the tallest men and with greater strength, we were spear carriers. The Omars and Minkaf, though not as large as Naguib and I, were also very strong. They carried the huge bows. Isesi ran at the back, a drum strapped to his shoulder, a long stick in his hand, striking the drum at each step. I said a short prayer for my comrades.

 

The cohorts ran ten wide, each with twenty men across its front. We moved quickly to the head of the valley and turned as one onto the flat ground between the hillsides. Ahead we could see the boiling dust of the battle and glimpse strange shapes, enormous shapes that seemed to fly through the dust. We saw the flash of weapons in the sun, and heard the roar of the men and the screams as they were destroyed. And for the first time, we heard, louder and more terrible than before, the screams of the Beast. The Centurions shouted, and for a moment the line slowed, then the drums began to beat more quickly and, with a roar of pride and anger, the line surged forward, and in that final moment as the dust cleared, before us opened the maw of hell.

 

I ran beside Naguib in the second rank, our spears held upright, our shields heavy on our arms. My ears were filled with the roaring of my comrades and the sounds of battle, my eyes streaming from the dust and sand, my heart bursting, an equal mixture of fear and pride. When I looked at Naguib I could see he was of the same mind, his mouth open, his teeth bared, his eyes wide like the madmen that visited from the land of the Dervish. Next to me a man tripped and was gone, crushed beneath the armoured mass that rushed behind. Of the following battle I can recall little. It seemed that we ran into a boiling cauldron of death, the crucible of the Gods of the Afterlife, a world of crashing steel, of dying men and screaming Beasts, of blinding dust amid beams of blinding light, of blood and flashing claws that tore flesh from flesh, of noise so loud as to crowd all sense from your mind, such that your chest became like stone, and you could not breath.

 

I remember my fear when the first Beast attacked us. To my left there was a huge roar and a crash and screams of men then the air split with the howl of the Beast. Men all around me screamed. I screamed. For the Beast was among us. I saw parts of men fly above my head and saw other men turn, ready to run. But Centurions shouted and the drums beat and we formed a line, our huge spears like a wall of death in front of us. It was then that I had my first sight of the Beast. To my shame my bowels failed me. But I was not alone. The Centurions had prepared us well. Our training had been hard, as hard as men could bear in so short a time. But it did not prepare us for the sight of the Beast, for it was more terrible than any could imagine. It stood the height of a camel and was wide as two oxen. It’s length was that of four men, perhaps five, its legs thicker than the columns of the temple at Thebes and, as it reared high over the line, I saw claws a full cubit in length. Its hide resembled armour, thick and coarse and the colour of ash. But the most fearsome part of the Beast was its head. A mouth that opened so wide as to take a man with full armour and crush him like a dry gourd. With yellow teeth sharper than my spear and as long as my forearm, that pierced the body and tore it into pieces. With eyes that flashed red in the sunlight, and that which pierced the heart, the terrible scream that seemed to freeze men where they stood, so that they could not move, until swept away in the storm of blood and broken bone of the Beast’s attack. It was a terrible sight. And though I am now an old man, still my dreams trouble me, and on even the hottest nights the water is cold upon my skin. And if I hear the sound of a distant hyena or jackal my heart will bump in my chest. It is something I can never forget.

 

The air above me whispered as a thousand shafts leapt from their bows, the archers loosing arrow after arrow at the attacking Beast. I saw many rear up as the arrows struck them, then drop to the ground, tearing at the arrows lodged in their eyes. But I saw many more rush at us through the storm of death with arrows bouncing from their hides as if chaff before the scythe. The Beast came at us at a pace greater than the fastest horse, as fast even as an arrow, leaps of fifty, nay sixty, cubits at one bound. I saw nothing else but the Beast, its maw open and screaming, the air shivering around me. It struck the line only three men to my right, breaking their bodies and spears as twigs and throwing men and armour into the air. A rush of foul air, worse than a rotting carcass, washed over me. The gorge rose in my throat and I remembered the old Bedouin. I felt a spray of warmth blow across my cheeks and saw that my arms and legs were red with blood. Near my foot lay an arm, next to that a head, the eyes still open, staring in fear. I knew then that we were doomed. That the Beast was too quick, too large, too fierce, that our weapons were as the reeds of the Nile that sway and bend in the wind. That nothing would stand against it.

 

To my left I saw a score of slingsmen fall, torn asunder by the mighty Beast, their stones bouncing from the armour of the Beast like wheat from the floor of the grainary. One slingsman stood firm for but a moment, his leather spinning fast above his head. But even as he loosed his stone he fell, his body crushed and bloodied as the Beast broke through our line. When the next Beast attacked, and the next, our courage failed. There was a shiver through the line as the second Beast struck, and when the third Beast followed, the cohort to our left could not hold. Though the Centurions shouts joined the enormous din, they could not halt it. Men were being torn asunder all around me. I saw a man, his body in two pieces. He lay upon the sand, still screaming, pointing to his legs that lay a spear length away. I saw a man run past me with one arm torn from the shoulder, blood spraying onto the yellow sand. Even as I watched he fell. I saw a Beast bite another man into pieces and swallow parts before throwing its head back and screaming again at the sun. As I watched it dropped its head and shook it from side to side, then it coughed and began to swing its head back to the battle. It roared once more and, in a single bound, took down twenty men. I speak the truth. It was then I also turned and ran.

 

As I ran back along the course of the valley I saw a whole army in retreat. All around ran my comrades, some still carrying their weapons and armour, others wearing only a loincloth and sandals. Many were wounded. Many fell and were left upon the sand as we ran. We knew that the Beasts would kill them before they died of their wounds. When I looked for my friends I saw that they ran close by. To my left ran Naguib, still carrying his spear, his eye upon me, a look of mirth upon his face. Even at a time of greatest danger could Naguib see some humour. I admit that it failed me on this day. He, too, was covered in the blood of our comrades, but I could see no wound. Behind Naguib ran the two Omars. They never strayed far from one another, their bows in one hand, quivers in the other. Minkaf ran with them. I was relieved that we had all survived the attack but I could not see Isesi. I looked again at Naguib and he tipped his head forward. I lifted my eyes and, up ahead to be sure, there was Isesi. He had lost his drum and ran unhindered, but as a duck might run, still carrying the long stick.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth early the third night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – due to a disorder of the bowels which Agymah is sure has been caused by bad wine – scribed by Imhotep, Son of Shariff, at the house of Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the Fourth Year of the Ox. Agymah’s wife, Eti, is saddened by her husband’s flatulence and ill humour.)

Part IV – God of Gods

(Here is written the fourth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Imhotep, Son of Shariff, at the house of Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the 33rd year of Senusret I, Pharaoh of all Egypt. Khuyb grinds ink and prepares the papyrus and is assisted by Paser. But the ink is poor of colour and filled with small rocks and so I have spoken curses and cast it to the ground. Khuyb smites me with eyes of fire. Paser cries like a baby.)

 

My belly is on fire and my bowels are ill humoured. I blame this on that wine merchant Nedemeb. His name is well suited. It means he is content, and so should he be, for his wine is the most expensive in Memphis. I do not mind that it is expensive, but for such a price, no less than a kitchen chair for a full goatskin, I would like to drink wine that does not cause my bowels to go to war.

 

Young Imhotep is not amused with my ramblings. I know that he and Khuyb believe it is not the taste of the wine, but that I drank the whole goatskin. Perhaps. Perhaps. But I see that Imhotep is becoming impatient, so I should continue my story. I shall start where I have finished. With the Battle of the Valley of the Winds. For though we did not know it, and truly believed we had been vanquished, it was a turning point. I will come to that.

 

We had been routed. Of that we were certain. The cohorts had run in to battle ten wide and two deep, the traditional Egyptian hammer that was to shatter the Beast on the rocky anvil of the valley floor. But it was not to be. In but the blink of an eye the Beast had smitten the Pharaoh’s mighty army, breaking through all forty lines of cohorts and slaying the unfortunate in their thousands. The broken army retreated upon the very path it had taken only hours before. All was chaos. All around us men fell wounded or exhausted and at first no one stopped to aid the fallen. But as the sounds of battle fell behind us and the Beasts no longer came, so men began to stop and tend to the fallen. Men dropped, exhausted, to the ground, tearing their water skins from their belts and drinking deeply. The Centurions ran about, shouting orders and regrouping the cohorts, pushing spear carriers to the front, archers and slingsmen to the centre, drummers to the rear. I wondered what Isesi would do without his drum.

 

The sun was low in the sky as the army reformed. We had lost many, but not so many as it first seemed. Our cohorts were two score in number when we began the morning. Of course some cohorts lost many men. And so these cohorts were joined to others. In the yellow light of the afternoon we found that but one score and five cohorts remained. Many of our comrades were dead and as many had been carried from the battlefield on wagons, their wounds terrible to behold. Truly, our losses were terrible. But we had not lost the many thousands we believed. And not the thousands that had fallen in so many other battles! Why was this so? Even the Centurions did not know? And why did the Beasts not follow and destroy us as we ran? What had saved us? In truth, I did not care. I sank to my knees in the sand and gave thanks.

 

As night fell, food and drink was carried to our camp in wagons. While we ate, the Centurions told us we would not fight again this day. For it was in darkness that the Beast was most terrible. Tonight we rest. We would fight again at first light. A short archer from Thebes, his skin dark as it is with those from the south, his face marked by disease, asked why the Beast had not followed the broken army. For his insolence a Centurion beat him with his sword but spoke then to the great mass of men. The Centurion told us that the Beast could be defeated if battled in the light of the sun. The Pharaoh had prayed to the Gods, and the Gods had sent a disease to attack the eyes of the Beasts, blinding them and driving them into the caves and hollows where the darkness lay. And so the Pharaoh’s army went forth, and fought the Beast only when the sun was high. And when night fell, the army would retreat to its camp. Three battles had been fought in this way, and each time the Beast had been defeated. Many Beasts had been killed and, at each battle, the dead and wounded were not as great. This news sent a rush of strength through the gathered men who raised their spears and swords and crashed them against their shields. But the Beast had become even more terrible when faced at night. The disease that destroyed its eyes in daytime had turned its eyes red like those of the Djinn, able to see in the darkest cave or deepest night. This sent another shiver through the gathering and there was much muttering and grumbling among the men.

 

The archer from Thebes spoke again and asked what we were to do if the Beast attacked in the darkness? We could not fight an enemy we could not see but one that could see us so well that it was as daylight to its reddened eye. The Centurion laughed and again slapped the archer with his sword. I knew now that they were known each to the other. The Centurion said that the Beast had not attacked the army for fourteen days, and that each battle, no matter how terrible, was now the making of the Pharaoh’s army. He said that ten thousand Beasts had crossed the Empty Quarter, stripping the land in a path that was two day’s ride to cross and stretching as far as the borders of Nubia and Maroc. In the many battles since the 4th year of Senroswet, thirty thousand men had died, but also many thousands of Beasts, and now less than three hundred remained. The Pharaoh had decreed that a number should be captured, not less than a score, but that all others must die. This was good news, and we slept with full bellies and hope in our hearts. But even then, as I lay in the dark, I felt fear touch me. I had seen the Beast and looked into its eyes. I knew that we would be tested. I knew that there would be many more deaths before the battle was won.

 

  • * *

 

We were raised early on that final day, the desert sand cold beneath our feet, the water in our goatskins crackling with ice. The Centurions shouted and kicked at the sleeping men. When the first bright rays of the sun broke over the distant horizon all men had eaten and the cohorts were formed. As we stood shivering, our weapons cold in our hands, the Centurions told us that we would attack in the mid morning, before the sun reached its zenith, but with it hard and bright at our backs. They said that the Beasts were nested near the head of the valley and that scouts had been on watch throughout the night. With the sun behind us as we attacked, the Beasts would be blind. As the drums began to beat we began our march. We were ready.

 

The desert stretched away from us on all sides, a wilderness of rocks and sand. Nowhere was there a tree or even a blade of grass. This was the Empty Quarter and I knew now why it was called so. Neither animal nor plant dwelled here. Nothing lived in the Empty Quarter except scorpions and black flies and the desert beetle, living on the dew left on the cold mornings, for there was no other water. A land of cruel beauty, it was a fitting place for our battle with the Beast. When we reached the mouth of the valley we rested, the sun hot upon our necks and shoulders, our faces wet with heat. Every man ate bread and drank well from his goatskin, for we did not know when we would again eat or drink. We gave greeting to the men around us and asked the Gods for guidance, for we did not know who would perish this day. I wore a short lace around my neck, tied with a tiny horse of clay, a gift from my brothers. I held it to my mouth and prayed. I hoped that I would live through this day and again see my family.

 

The line of battle was ten cohorts wide and five deep. This time we would sweep into the valley and wrap our army around the Beast, attacking it from all sides. Again the drums began to beat, the sound echoing from the hillsides and the valley rocks. In the distance, at the head of the valley, the air shimmered with the desert heat. Was there something moving? Was it the Beast? I felt fear rise again in my chest. Then the Centurions shouted again, and we began to run. Our feet pounded on the sand and stones, our weapons crashed against our shields, our drums beat loud as those in the temple of Osiris, our voices rose as one in the early morning air. We were almost five thousand strong, against three hundred. We must triumph. But in my heart I knew it was, at best, a battle of equals.

 

As we entered the valley we could see the Beasts stirring in the shade of the rocks, distant from us, but still close enough to see their size and their strength. We knew, in this battle, that we were the aggressor. We were not the prey but the predator. For the first time I felt some pity for the Beast. But in the next moment that was swept away as the Beasts attacked. At the first movement of the Beasts our lines halted and we knelt and braced our long spears in the earth. I was in the second line and to each side of me there stretched a wall of bronze teeth, the spear tips gleaming in the sun. Again the arrows whispered in the air above us, flying in their thousands towards the oncoming terror. We watched as the first wave of Beasts fell, their eyes pierced by the long shafts. But more ran on than those that fell. I felt a fear rise within me again as the Beasts closed upon us. But this time, I felt also a strength. I knew that we must prevail but still my heart pounded with fear.

 

The Centurions said that three hundred Beasts remained. Of that three hundred I believe a full ten score attacked us in the first wave on that fateful morning. As before, the Beasts came to us us faster than the fastest horse, many falling under the arrows but many more rushing on in great leaps and bounds, the sounds of their demon feet against the sand as loud as the thunder of a mighty storm, their screams so loud as to pierce my head with pain. I heard the muttering of the men around me rise to a roar as the first Beasts crashed into the line. All around me men and Beasts screamed and fought, the noise so loud that I felt my head would burst. The spear carrier in front of me took a Beast, his spear piercing it through the chest. But his spear collapsed and he was crushed as the Beast thrust forward only to impale itself deeply upon my weapon. Again, in my shame, my bowels failed. I recall that I screamed in fear but, by Osiris, some strength came to me and I held fast as the Beast roared, its foul breath choking my lungs, its plunging all but pulling my arms from my body. It was my good fortune that my spear held firm, its shaft strong and firmly planted, for the Beast frothed blood from its mouth and nose and died.

 

The Beast lay with my spear passed through its throat and I could not remove it. But the dead were many and I did not seek long for another weapon. I chose the spear of a comrade who had fallen nearby and prepared myself for the next charge. A hand fell on my shoulder and I saw the face of Naguib. He was bloodied as before but safe. He knelt beside me. Another whisper of arrows passed over us and we watched more Beasts fall. The floor of the valley was covered with huge carcasses, many alive and clawing at their eyes, others unmoving in the sand. Not even this mighty Beast could stand against the poisons on the barbs. To my left and right I could see that our line stood firm, though holed and shattered in many places, the dead piled in rows like fallen trees. Again, thousands were falling beneath the claws of the Beast.

 

Then our Centurions returned, running back and forth across the line, shouting at us, regrouping and moving to reform the line. I could not believe it. The Beasts had retreated to the head of the valley after only one charge. There were many dead on the valley floor, at least five score. I saw that no more than ten score remained alive. The legion of mighty Beasts was no more. But even now I felt the quiver of fear flow through me. And I saw in the eyes of my fellows that even they did not dare to believe that we could win this battle. Even now, when only ten score of the Beasts remained, would our great army prevail?

 

Behind us our drums began to beat, again driving us to our feet and forward, toward the Beast, toward the end of this terrible war. We moved forward, crashing our feet hard into the sand, crashing our weapons against out shields, shouting at the Gods. The noise we made was mighty and we believed we were mighty. This was the end. This was where it would end. The Beasts roared and screamed in the deep shade under the rocks. As the Beasts moved about I saw smaller forms to the rear. I remember that I was surprised. For I had not thought anything of the origin of the Beast other than it was the spawn of the Gods of the underworld, an evil demon sent forth into the world of man. But off course it was not. It was an animal. And animals will sire young. Again, I was moved and felt pity for what we were about to do. Then the drums stopped and a Centurion ran in front and halted the advance.

 

As we stood in the sand, our sandals hot against our feet, our armour burning like the pots in our mother’s hearth, we heard the scrape and rattle of chariots and the whinny of horses. A loud roar came from the men to our right. We knew the only user of horses and chariots to be the Pharaoh. Could it be that he was here. But why? To fight with us against the Beast? Or to watch while we destroyed it? We cheered loudly as the chariot raced along our flank before stopping on a small rise near the head of our cohort. Two horses, white and painted, hauled the chariot, their leather fittings gilded with studs of gold and silver, their heads plumed with tall white feathers from the birds traded by the Nubians. The chariot was like the sun, yellow gold and pink copper, the wheel rims of bronze, the spokes of gilded wood.

 

It was our Pharaoh, Senusret I, God of Gods, Born of the Sun, Child of Isis and Osiris. He had come to speak with us, to tell us of his message from the Gods and the homage they asked of him. If only we had known what further perils would follow. But that is not the way of the world, and it is not given to any man to foresee his future. Perhaps this is not so bad, for ill it would be for man to know the time of his death, or that of his loved ones. And I have been happy these many years with my wife Eti. And the many joys I have know have sprung unforeseen to my heart and in this have been ever more joyful. And, truth be known, it might be that had I known of my wife’s mother my courage might have failed me. To have fled the kingdom of the Q’uin without Eti at my side? I could not think of it. And while it is true that I could never feel affection for Chang Ying, and I have not seen her these many years, still her evil eye haunts me.

 

But I should talk no more this night, for Khuyb has now turned her own evil eye upon me, and has told me that should I not show respect for my wife’s mother I will be cast in stone and forced to live forever as the rock that holds fast the door of the latrine. Such words. May the Gods have mercy upon my daughter.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the fourth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Imhotep, Son of Shariff, at the house of Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the 33rd year of Senusret I. Khuyb refuses to speak with me and Paser has returned to his home.)

Part V – Under a Boiling Sun

(Here is written the fifth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Imhotep, Son of Shariff, at the house of Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the 33rd year of Senusret I, Pharaoh of all Egypt. I have spoken with Paser who has returned to assist Khuyb. Her mother, Eti, has cooked sweetbreads and laid them before me.)

 

It is two nights since my daughter Khuyb fixed me with her beady stare and told me I was unkind to my wife’s mother. Does she not know that all men are unkind to their wife’s mother, and in turn are treated unkindly? It is not a matter of respect. It is a truth of nature that this must take place. And how would she know anyway, were it not for the stories that her mother tells. And of course young Imhotep has taken her side and argued against me in this matter. But I see how he passes a glance at Khuyb and I know that he argues more to please her than to say what he truly believes. This also is a truth of nature, that young men will do such things when seeking the favour of young women. And so on we go. But I must start my story again, for Imhotep is looking at me with dark eyes and, should Khuyb return, there is no doubt that she would also plague me. Again, this is a truth of nature. Enough! Enough! cries Imhotep. And so we begin.

 

When our Pharaoh appeared before us in his chariot of gold we fell to our knees as one and paid homage. Even the Centurions knelt, one hand upon their spears. The sun was hot on our backs as we knelt in the sand, the black flies thick across our shoulders. We knelt silently for what seemed a long time until the Pharaoh spoke. His voice was soft, like the reeds along the Nile, and we could but barely hear his words. He spoke of a visit from the Gods. How Ra and Osiris had come to him as he slept, waking him and walking with him in the gardens of his palace. He spoke of their words to him, words that told him of the great Lion of the Sands, the mythical Beast from the west that would come to Egypt to test it in its time of prosperity. They spoke of battles, of death, of glory, of the capture of the mighty Lion of the Sands, and of its transport to the distant land of Gond.

 

I could not turn my eyes from the Pharaoh as he spoke. It is the truth that I had never seen such finery. The golden head-dress that rose high above his head yet touched his shoulders, its crown marked with crossed sceptres of a crook and a flail, its edges tipped with the deep blue of lapis lazuli, the sceptre of gold and onyx that he held high, the burnished gold of the chariot, the gold and black trappings of the harness, the gleaming white of the horses, their heads topped with white feathers. It is also the truth that I, like all those around me, was dazzled and awed at the sight.

 

The Pharaoh gave praise to the army. He said we had defeated the Beast, but that it should not be destroyed. The Gods had ordained that it be captured and transported to the land of Gond. He said the land of Gond was beyond the Pillars of Hercules, far beyond the sea, and that a band of fearless warriors must perform this task. What did the Pharaoh mean? Capture? Transport? I heard men around me muttering. These were questions that would be answered before night fell. But the Pharaoh said no more. We watched as his chariot and those of his generals swept from the field of battle, their passing marked by a cloud of dust. We did not doubt that they would await the outcome of the battle from the comfort of their tents, at ease in the shade, with sweet tea and cakes and the fans of the courtiers.

 

The dust from the Pharaoh’s chariots had barely settled when we heard the creak and rattle of much larger vehicles, the crack of the wagoneer’s lash, and the bellow of the oxen. As we watched, a score of huge wagons moved slowly to the side of our formations. The wagons were low and many cubits in length, perhaps five score, and had many wheels. Each wheel was wide and heavy so that it might easily cross the desert sand, and each had many strong spokes as if to support a mighty weight. All the wagons were made of the wood of the Tamarix tree, that from the land of the Mittani, and known for its great strength. The wagons were pulled by teams of oxen, a score to each wagon. On each wagon stood a cage of cured leather and bronze, more than enough to give each man in the army a new sword and armour for his whole body. Each cage was as large as my father’s house, made of strong bars of bronze, as thick as a man’s arm, bound with painted knots of cured leather at the joints.

 

I remember my thoughts when I saw these cages of leather and bronze. They were great in size, much greater than the Beast, but would they have the strength to tame its savagery? Would the bars hold against its might? And how were we to place the Beast within each cage? I looked to my friend Naguib but Naguib just grinned and lifted his shoulders. I knew that he did not care. Naguib was always one to accept whatever may come. To my credit I must say that I tried to be as Naguib, many times. But, as is often my want, my mind would move to solve a problem before it became so. Such is my nature and never could I change it. For this even my father would scold me.

 

But I did not have to worry. I was soon to find that the Pharaoh’s courtiers and generals had planned well, that our triumph was assured, that our destruction of all but a score of the terrible Beasts was to take place that very day, their blood and ours spilled for the Gods, the last of the Beasts carried off in the bronze cages, my fate and that of my friends already ordained. In my life it I have seen this many times, that few men of power may decide the lot of the many, and in doing so, give assurance that such things are for the betterment of all. It has ever been so.

 

  • * *

 

But our rest was short lived. Soon our drums again began to beat and the Centurions ran to and fro in front of our lines, shouting and pointing their spears down the valley. It was time. There were still ten score of Beasts in the shadows at the head of the valley. But this time we must not kill them all. At battle’s end some Beasts must remain alive. For we must fill the cages. The Pharaoh had spoken.

 

We watched as the cohorts on each side of our formation began to run along the sides of the valley, the Centurions leading, the drums pounding. The cohorts moved forward until a long line of men, five deep, stretched the length of the walls of the short valley. We heard distant shouts and saw the long lines kneel, their spears falling forward and creating a wall of death. Then the drums ceased and our Centurions appeared shouting and ordering the spear carriers to the sides, leaving the archers and slingsmen exposed. Around me men muttered and looked around. What was this plan? We were ordered to kneel in the sand and set our spears. But the archers and slingsmen were unprotected. Then the wagons began to move forward and all became clear.

 

All the wagoneers were Nubian, their skins gleaming black under the desert sun, their kurbaj of plaited hide from the horned beasts of the south, their bodies clothed in leather armour. More than ten men attended each wagon. Many carried drums, some carried long pikes. We watched as the giant black men drew the wagons into a line on the floor of the valley, turning the oxen until they faced away from the Beasts. When each wagon was halted those Nubians with pikes leapt forward and drove huge stakes into the desert sand. They lashed each stake to the sides of the wagons with long strands of plaited hemp, each as thick as a man’s arm. When each wagon was secured, long heavy pieces of timber were brought forward and laid each against the wagon bed so as to make a path that someone or something might pass. Two Nubians ran along the timber path and swung open the wide doors of the bronze cages and lashed each with thick strands of hemp. The cohorts lined each side of the valley, a wall of spears to guide the Beasts to their cages. But how I asked myself as I stood, shoulder to shoulder with Naguib? How would we drive the Beast from its shelter in the rocks? That also was soon to be answered.

 

The Centurions shouted again and the archers and slingsmen moved forward, forming lines across the front of the wagons. There was more shouting from our rear then two score of men ran forward carrying firepots and sheaves of arrows, their long barbs wrapped in rags dipped in tar. They ran through the lines of archers, passing arrows to the archers and driving long stakes into the sand, each topped with a burning torch. From these the archers would light their arrows. It was then that drums again began to beat, the noise rising behind us like a desert storm. I felt the fear rise in my throat as the air throbbed. At the end of the valley I could see the Beasts moving in the shadows and I felt their fear. There could be only one victor, and as I looked at the wall of death, the cages and the ranks of archers, their arrows burning bright in the sun, I knew that the Beast was doomed. But I knew also that more men would die for the Pharaoh’s dream.

 

The sky filled with flaming arrows and there was a mighty roar from the cohorts. We felt the earth shake as the Beast screamed, then the air was again aflame with whispering death, waves of arrows falling upon the Beasts, spearing into the hides of the larger Beasts and piercing those of the younger. We watched as the Beasts milled, the elders circling, screaming, knowing that they must protect the young. But knowing, too, that they must go forth and kill the enemy. Another whisper, as of the hiss of the asp, and a thousand shafts flew to the Beasts, dark smoke like ribbons in the sky. More Beasts fell and the air broke with the screaming of the wounded animals. The rocks and shadows seemed to burn and flicker with flame and movement as the Beasts sought shelter for themselves and their young. But there was no shelter. Everywhere the Beasts turned the flaming barbs fell, piercing skin and eye. And burning, always burning.

 

At last it was too much for those Beasts that remained, perhaps five score. Sweeping their young beside them they attacked, crashing into the line on one side of the valley, tearing men limb from limb and throwing bodies and broken spears into the air like the shattered branches of trees in a storm. The attack was so fierce and the Beast so terrible that the whole line shuddered. Men died by the score, torn apart by the bloodied claws and teeth of the mighty Beast. The roars and screams of dying men joined those of the Beast, the drums pounded, and for a long moment I feared that even now, even when the Beast was all but defeated, still might it destroy us.

 

Above us, the sun boiled in the sky, again turning our armour to heated plates that burned out skin. Our sandals were slick with heat and rough with sand, and tore the skin from our feet. The air was filled with dust and the screams of men and Beasts, the sky black with the smoke of the burning arrows, and always the drums, pounding, pounding, filling our heads with noise while our hearts filled with fear. How could we not defeat this terrible Beast I asked? Men began to fall back and run and, as the smoke cleared, I saw the line on the right side of the valley fail, men throwing their spears to the ground and running before being cut down in pieces by the mighty Beasts. Our Centurions screamed, running back and forth. But were their shouts enough to hold the line? I looked at Naguib and this time he did not smile. He looked at me, then spat into the sand and steadied his spear with his sandal. I took heart and did the same. If we stood firm we might prevail. If we did not, our death was assured.

 

I looked to my left and saw that two cohorts stood firm, one on each side of the wagons, but the eyes of my comrades were filled with fear. A shiver of ice ran through my chest. If another cohort failed then the battle was lost. Almost half of our number lay in pieces in the desert sands, their heads and limbs parted from their bodies, their bellies spilling blood and organs. Everywhere was death. No more men could we lose and hope to defeat the Lion of the Sands. The cohort that stood on the left side of the valley had not been attacked by the Beast and its line also stood firm, its bronze spear tips flickering in the sunlight. I heard the drums beat louder again as the Centurions steadied the failed cohorts of the right. I felt my heart lift. We would not succeed in this battle if we did not fight together.

 

The valley was filled with death. Ten score of Beasts lay dead or dying, but the scattered dead of the army numbered many more, more than that of ten, nay fifteen, cohorts destroyed, their broken bodies in pieces across the sand, their blood already black under the desert sun. The smoke of the flaming arrows burned our eyes so they wept sorely, and the dust was so thick as to hide the running men and the hunting Beasts. In little more than a day our great army had been all but halved, men felled as broken reeds, their souls scattered to the wind, forever trapped in the netherworld. As the smoke and dust cleared I saw that only two score of Beasts remained alive, in equal shares both elder and younger Beasts. The elder Beasts protected the younger animals, holding them in a tight circle on the valley floor, screaming at the surrounding army. We watched as the left line of the army began to wrap itself behind the Beasts, the men moving forward, their spears a wall of death. At the same time the men that remained of the cohorts of the right, still reeling from their destruction, moved forward, roaring and beating spears and shields.

 

The Beasts reared and screamed, snapping their terrible jaws at the advancing lines, their mighty claws tearing at the sand. But they could do little. Like any elder, they feared to leave the young. The Beasts could do no more than move toward the wagons, all the while snapping and screaming at the enemy before them. The air was filled with the Beasts’ screams and the roaring of the men and I joined my voice with it. The drums rose to a mighty noise, like that of the thunder of the greatest storm and the Beasts, screaming and roaring like demons from the underworld, rushed to the wagons and into the bronze cages, their red eyes blazing, their jaws licked with foam. The giant Nubians leapt forward and the battle was over as the doors of the cages crashed shut. Then a mighty roar came from the men that lived, so loud that the rocks and the valleys shook, as if Osiris and Ra had come forth and cast down lightning. I fell to my knees and, I speak truly, I wept as a child. For I was alive, though many were dead. I felt Naguib’s arm about my shoulders, and I heard the Omar’s whispering behind me. As I looked through the water in my eyes I saw Minkaf drop to his knees in front of us, his face covered in ashes and blood, his long bow across one shoulder. Behind him knelt Isesi, a fiendish grin upon his face, his long stick in one hand, his drum in the other. He nodded and touched my arm. At last, I thought, it is over.

 

But it was not to be. The Gods watched over us that night as we drank from our wineskins and cavorted and laughed with our friends. While we drank deeply from the cup of life, our hearts light after so much death and horror, the Gods plotted our fates, dicing with our lives in the stars of the heavens, casting our fortunes forth like sand in the wind. We drank and we laughed for we did not know the dangers that awaited us. Our adventure was yet to begin.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the fifth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – Agymah has retired to his bed, having shed many tears at these memories – scribed by Imhotep, Son of Shariff, in the City of Memphis. Khuyb has forgiven me but Paser will not speak with me. The ink and papyrus is such that the priests would be joyful.)

Part VI – We Journey to Heliopolis

(Here is written the sixth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Imhotep, Son of Shariff, at the house of Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis on this 10th night in the month of Mesra in the Season of Shemu.)

 

It is now many days since we have spoken and I have wished it that we could continue my journal. But Imhotep has been busy. He sells goats at the port. And now it is that I know my rank. It is somehow beneath that of the common goat. Yes. A goat. Now I know that where money must change hands it is a difficult choice for a businessman. But a goat? I am not pleased with Imhotep, or his love of goats, though I see that he hides a smile as he writes my words. But that Imhotep is pleased I am sure, for we sit in the house of my daughter, and he now sits close by her side. It may be that she favours him above others. For she is two years widowed and without children. It would be a good thing that she remarry. Her husband was named Reshef, a baker of breads, strong and handsome, struck upon his foot by a scorpion and taken from us in but a day. Reshef was kind to my daughter, and came often to my house bearing breads still hot from the fire of the oven. Much sadness has followed his passing from this life. But that Imhotep should be my son-in-law? I have given no thought to such. My head aches even to talk of it. And now I see that Khuyb is laughing, and also my good wife Eti. I may be an old man but I am not a fool, though sometimes I think they treat me as such. I will ignore them and continue my tale.

 

Our army had been victorious. The Lion of the Sands had been defeated. And now we would return to our homes and our loved ones. This is what we believed. Alas. It was not to be. For our cohort was selected by the Centurions to accompany the wagons to the port of Heliopolis. While the army marched off across the dunes, disappearing early on the first day, we remained with the wagons, hauling our heavy load slowly across the rocks and sand while the oxen strained against their ropes, and the wagons creaked and rattled. Within the bronze cages the mighty Beasts lay quiet as if asleep, the young at their sides. We had captured greater than a score of the Beasts, a score of elders and a half score of young. There were equal numbers of male and female, the males the larger as a camel to a horse.

 

On that first day I wondered how we would feed this terrible caravan. But our leaders had planned well. With us we herded a large flock of goats, and each day we slew ten of the flock and cast the carcasses into the cages. Of course a single goat could not feed the two and three Beasts in each cage, and so they fasted and began to waste. We had but two hundred goats and the journey was to take almost thirty days. As fortune would have it two oxen died on the journey and we slew two wild camels. These we also fed to the Beasts who ate with great pleasure, growling deep in their throats and tearing off large pieces with their teeth and claws. Even the young were fearsome, standing taller than a man and perhaps of the weight of two or three oxen. I saw that the elders did not eat their fill, instead leaving much for the young, as is always the want of parents when there is little food.

 

Our journey to Heliopolis held little to interest us. Each day was hot and filled with dust and sand, the skin of our feet rubbed raw in our sandals, the Beasts lying silent in the cages, their eyes sometime flickering red in the evening light, the goats crying piteously as they went to their fate, the oxen pulling their heavy load without complaint. The Nubians were, for the most part, silent. Each day they walked beside the huge wagons, their whips curling across the backs of the oxen as we crested a steep dune, their skin as black and shining as onyx. It seemed that only one Centurion could speak the Nubian tongue and so we had little to say to our black comrades, and their camp was always a bowshot in distance. Minkaf grumbled that they had the airs of courtiers or priests and I must agree it did appear that way.

 

Late one night, when we were perhaps three days march from Heliopolis, I awoke and felt the need to pass water. I arose from my sleeping mat and went forth a short distance from the camp, passing the bronze cages where the mighty shapes lay quiet in the darkness. As I stopped to let the water pass I felt a strange feeling as of ice upon my back, that I was not alone. When I turned and looked I saw that one of the Beasts had woken, its head high, its eyes shining red in the night, like temple lamps. I cried out in fear, for in that first moment I believed a demon had come for me. But the Beast’s eyes closed slowly then opened again and I knew then that it watched me. I remembered the words of the Centurion after our first defeat by the Beast. The eyes of the Djinn he had told us, able to see in darkest cave and deepest night. My mind swirled with strange thoughts. Could it be that the Beast was not of this world? Why was it here? And why did the Pharaoh wish to save it from destruction? I returned to my sleeping mat and sat upon it, and watched the Beast while the moon moved across the heavens.

 

After a short time I ventured nearer the cage and, as I walked, the Beast’s huge head turned to follow me, its eyes red and unblinking. It was this night that I came to know the Beast’s night sight, and that its eyes were stronger in the night than in the day. To test this sight I ran to my sleeping mat and took my eating bowl, and while I ran I saw the Beast’s eyes follow. I returned to the cage and saw that the Beast was watching, then cast my eating bowl into the darkness. The Beast’s head rose and turned as its eyes followed my bowl through the night. To me this explained many things. The red eyes of the Beast, that wept and ran in the bright sun, why each day the Beast would lie sleeping, unmoving, for many hours. The Beast was a night dweller, one that lived in the darkness, and roamed the sands while men slept. This truly was a strange animal and I returned to my sleeping mat filled with fear. I did not tell my comrades of what I saw, but it did not matter, as they would come to know well the Beast and its strange ways in the days to come.

 

  • * *

 

A storm darkened the heavens on the night we came to Heliopolis. As we journeyed through the empty streets, deep in the bowels of the night, the lightning flashed above us, thunder crashing, the streets bright as daylight for but a moment, then of a darkness so deep as that of the tomb. Our feeble torches fluttered in the rain and wind. We knew a great misery for all were hungry and cold. When would this ever end?

 

It was a night of bad omens. Twice we halted to repair the broken leathers of the oxen. And once when the wheels of a wagon sank deep into the sodden earth. The rain fell in sheets of ice upon our shoulders. No lamps burned at the street corners. All houses were shuttered and dark, the only sounds in the night the creaking of the wagon wheels and the rattle of the cages. Our feet sank deep into the mud as water washed through the streets, filled with waste and filth. I had lived many years in Memphis and thought it of some beauty, but the carelessness of other dwellers sometimes confused me, turning streets into dung heaps, oft running with rats and other vermin, the mud so thick as to reach above the straps of my sandals. The streets of Heliopolis were also awash with filth. It would never be so in front of my father’s house.

 

As we journeyed through the streets of Heliopolis I knew we neared the port, for the smell of the sea grew strong in our noses. And when at last the Centurions halted our wagons, we stood upon the merchants’ quay at the Port of Heliopolis, where carved stones as large as a granary rose so high that a ship could come beside them and goods be passed easily to and fro. I recall that I stood in awe, for our wagons had halted close to the side of a mighty ship, the like of which I had never seen. True, I had seen the dhows upon the Nile since a child, and once, when travelling with my uncle Bibi to the port, I saw a strange ship from the Land of the Keftiu. It was much larger than the dhows, more than a hundred cubits in length and twenty, nay thirty, cubits in its beam, with two tall masts and sails of strongest hemp. The ship that now stood before us was even greater.

 

I have said that our masters planned well. And so they did. On this night we watched as the Nubians brought forward each wagon and unyoked the oxen, then hauled each wagon along a wide ramp of strong timber that stretched from the heavy carved stones of the quay to the open side of the mighty ship. Ten times the Nubians did this, their bodies black and streaming with rain, the lights of the torches flickering on the black leather and yellow bronze of the cages, until all the cages had been hauled onto the ship. Our Centurions began to run back and forth and shout, as they always do, reforming the cohort, preparing for the march to camp. ‘We have completed our quest’ the Centurion called to us as we stood wet and cold in the rain. ‘The Beast has been conquered and is now readied for transport to the far reaches of the world. To the Land of Gond. The Pharaoh will be well pleased.’

 

Our cohort was ten score men when we marched to meet the Beast. Three score of days had now passed, and the cohort numbered little more than two score men. So many had fallen. But in the darkness and rain the faces of the men around me were happy and I, as did they, began to dream of home, of my mother’s cooking, of my father’s kind wisdom. And, of course, of dry feet and a soft bed. But as is ever the case, I have come to know in my three score years of this life that the Gods oft make other plans. So even then I was not surprised, not really, when a Centurion came forward through the ranks of the cohort to where I stood, wet and cold, with my friends. As he stood in front of us I knew that the omens had come to pass. He gave short instruction, that we, Naguib, the Omars, Minkaf, Isesi and myself, along with two other men, yet another Omar and a particularly strong fellow named Musharrif, were to stay as the last men of the cohort moved off.

 

Our hearts were low as we stood silent in the rain, a Centurion standing with us, watching as the cohort led the oxen and the Nubians into the night. We watched as their torches disappeared in the darkness until the only sounds were the creak and groan of the timbers of the ship as it moved against the stones of the quay, and the rattle of the cages as one of the mighty Beasts moved around. On the deck of the ship I saw the flash of white eyes and teeth along the rail. Some Nubians also remained. I wondered what was to come. When the torches of our comrades fluttered from our sight our Centurion turned and gathered us close around him. He told us that we were the chosen ones, selected by the Pharaoh to transport the Beast. We had been chosen because of our strength and because of our love of the sea. I knew that to be untrue of course for only Naguib was a sailor. But you also must know how it is with those of power. They will do and say many things to achieve their ends. And care little that what they say may not be the truth.

 

The Centurion’s name was Omar. I beat my head and asked myself why it is that there are so many Omars. Even two is too many. He said that we would transport the Beast to the land of Gond, that we would be aided by more than a half score of Nubians, and that we should complete our journey in but seven moons. I remember how my heart trembled in my chest. It was three moons, perhaps more, since I had tasted my mother’s cooking. I missed it greatly. Of course the Pharaoh’s armies did not go forth with empty bellies, but their food could not compare with the taste of my mother’s pilaf. And now we would have Minkaf as cook, the best among us to be sure, but in all truth, terrible. Even Naguib grumbled. I asked the Centurion if we were to see our families before we departed but he said to us that there was no time, that it was the Pharaoh’s will we sail the tide that very night. At this the bile rose again in my throat, for I knew our journey would have more dangers, dangers as great as any we had already faced, dangers that might yet claim us. To leave without farewell to those we loved was indeed a heavy load to bear.

 

But it was to be that we did not speak with our loved ones, for our ship set sail in the early hours of the new day, in the month of Renwet, in the Season of Shemu, in the 1st year of Senusret I. We sailed with a crew of one score and three under our captain Naguib, from the merchants’ quay in the Port of Heliopolis, in the early morning light, the rain soft on our shoulders, the wind firm from the east. Naguib shouted and ran back and forth on the deck of the ship, in much the same manner as we had seen of the Centurions. We hauled sails and manned the tiller beam, and the Port of Heliopolis was soon left far behind, as we sailed upon the great river, the Nile, towards the Sea Medi. Naguib turned our stern to the sun, as it rose above the horizon, and the wind filled our sails. Our journey had begun, the Centurions said, a journey that was to take but seven moons. Of course it did not.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the sixth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Imhotep, Son of Shariff and Khuyb, daughter of Agymah – for she is learning the way of letters – in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox.)

Part VII – The Pillars of Hercules

(Here is written the seventh night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, and Imhotep, Son of Shariff, at the house of Agymah and Eti, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Imhotep grinds ink and prepares papyrus. Paser assists.)

 

Naguib was sorely tested in our first days at sea, for of the four and twenty souls on board, barely a handful knew anything of sailing. But he was ever a man of even temper, and had settled the tasks of all on board by the third day, though it was not without much shouting and, for the Nubians, much waving of hands and tapping of chests. It was many moons before we were able to speak words that all could understand.

 

The ship was large, almost two hundred cubits in length, with two decks. The main deck was all but two score cubits in its width and stretched the length of the huge ship, though the front of the boat, which Naguib informed us was called the bow, had a raised area with a small mast and sail. This Naguib called the foredeck. Our cooking area was situated on the main deck, just below the foredeck, with an area of sail pulled tight above it to shelter those who worked there. The cooking area had a number of large vats and pots secured to the deck with bronze bolts. Each pot sat above a clay oven, held in place with wooden chocks through which long wooden pegs were passed. To one side there was a large bench, also fixed to the deck, while on the other there was a deep cabinet in which we placed our firewood. We all agreed it was a fine kitchen.

 

The main deck was a vast expanse of dressed timbers from the palms along the Nile. Wide pieces of timber, hewn flat by the woodworkers of Luxor, were laid side by side, each secured with wooden pegs, their joints filled with pitch. On each side of the ship there were long rails made of Tamarix. They reached the height of a man’s waist and were broken at lengths of forty cubits to allow goods to be passed to and fro. Across these openings stretched a braided rope of hemp. Two masts of vast height were also set in the main deck, each with a hempen sail greater than thirty cubits in width and more than thirty in height, held by thick ropes of hemp that we loosed or tightened when Naguib shouted. Ropes and other tools were stored in sturdy cabinets at the base of each mast. Our weapons were also secured in racks that were bound to the base of each mast. On each side of the foremost mast, at the rail of the ship, a small dhow was held firm by more hempen ropes.

 

To the rear of the ship, referred to by Naguib as the stern, stood a high deck, larger than that at the bow, and on this Naguib and the Centurion would be found. There three Nubians manned the tiller beam, a huge timber, carved from the log of the Tamarix, greater than twenty cubits in length, and so large that a man’s arms could not span its girth. The beam was joined by rope and tar to the huge rudder that stretched from the rear of the ship deep into the water. It too was constructed of Tamarix wood, large flat pieces of timber joined by tar and hemp and long wooden pegs. Such was the strength of the seas, greater even than the Pharaoh’s army, that thick ropes of hemp held the tiller beam fast, each rope fastened to the rail of the ship. Man alone could not hold the tiller beam against the wind and the sea.

 

The Beasts’ cages were set along the main deck, a sail tied firmly to the top of each to provide shelter from the sun. On the inside of each cage, near the doors, the makers had fixed a trough for water. Each day we would bring water from the deck below, hauling barrels up the narrow steps with leather slings across our back. The second deck was set within the bowels of the ship, stretching as did the main deck the full length of the ship but broken into storerooms and sleeping quarters. As I have said many times, our leaders planned well. Many of the storerooms were filled with provisions. There was plentiful food and water, salted meats and vegetables, barrels of wine and many grains, enough for three score of days at sea. One large room, with wooden troughs on two sides, held ten score of goats. Needless to say the smell was terrible even so early in our voyage. Naguib made sure that we sluiced the area each day.

 

There were storerooms filled with strange clothes, made from the skins of animals with thick wool at the necks, sturdy leather boots with leather thongs to bind them, other boots, also leather but lined with thick hair, as if the skins of the goats had been tanned then turned inward. These strange clothes hung in lines upon the walls of the storerooms, the boots in rows beneath. In wooden cabinets against one wall were pieces of headwear, the like of which we had never seen, made of leather with a flat top, and long pieces that could wrap around the face, like the faceplates of an armoured helmet, and tied with strips of leather. Why would anyone wear these strange garments we asked. And how could they wear such things for they would surely expire of the heat. We shook our heads in amazement. Even Omar and Naguib had no answer.

 

But one storeroom caused great consternation. It was locked fast, the Pharaoh’s seal in wax set across the opening. Omar the Centurion held the key and he would not say what lay within. Needless to say it was not long before the ship was alive with gossip. Isesi believed it was filled with food, sweetmeats that only Omar could partake of, unlocking the storeroom in the night and gorging himself on delicacies of which we could only dream. Minkaf believed that there were others within the storeroom, saying that he had heard voices sometimes when passing. He said that it was the family of the Pharaoh, even the Pharaoh himself, and that we would only see them when our journey had ended. The two Omars did not seem perturbed and simply shook their heads and spat betel into the sea. I was curious but knew better than to speak too much of what might be. I knew that Naguib would tell us when it was time.

 

When I set forth on this journey with Naguib I had never before sailed, other than to float on a reed raft upon the Nile. And only then for a short period, for I am not a water person. Why would I be? Every fool knows that monsters dwell there. So I did not take well to our life at sea. In truth I was truly miserable for many days, while Naguib walked the decks happily as all others hung from the railing, their bellies emptied of food, their heads aching. But as the days went by, and the sun rose and set, those of us that were not sailors became so. I found that the rolling motion of the ship, which for many days made my head spin and my belly churn, became that of the cradle, rocking me gently to sleep in the evenings and, in the daytime, dizzying me as we sped down long waves, the spume and spray hitting our faces and cooling us in the sun.

 

We sailed the Medi for two score of days and nights and, as we neared the Pillars of Hercules, our skins were brown as if stained with the tea that Minkaf brewed each morning. Our hands were hardened and scarred from the ropes and rigging of the ship. And our hair, always dark as coal, was streaked with white and gold. Naguib told us that the water of the ocean contained much salt, and that if we were to put it to our hair or upon our clothes it would bring forth new colours. He also told us that we should never drink of it, not even if we were mad with thirst. For he had heard tales of men lost at sea who, without water for many days, had drunk of the ocean. And every man had died, screaming in pain and madness. Of course this did nothing to make me feel more comfortable, floating on a wooden ship so far from land, in the midst of an ocean without end.

 

But Naguib taught us well, and by this time we had all settled into our regular tasks. Each day it was my lot to assist Minkaf in preparation of our breakfast. Many days we would eat of porridge boiled with water and salt. Sometimes Minkaf would add some dates for sweetness. On others he would add salted olives. I found it to be a fine meal after I had picked the weevils from my bowl. Even the Nubians liked it. But Isesi and the Omars often complained. On one morning they were so shrill in their complaints that Minkaf took the vat, filled with porridge and dates, and threw it from the side of the ship. We all went hungry that morning, but there were no more complaints.

 

After breakfast I would feed the Beasts. This was a task that took much time, though I was assisted by one of the Nubians, a very large man by the name of Nabob. I could not tell his age but I believed he was older than I, though perhaps not by many years, for his teeth were strong and white. We did not speak much but it seemed we could work together with little effort. He and I were of the same mind, that was clear. The Beasts gave us little trouble and I must say that this surprised me. I think Nabob, too, was surprised. Each day, before the sun rose to more than a hands breadth above the horizon, I would go below decks and secure a goat and bring it crying and bleating to the cage. Each of the cages had a small grate on one side, hinged with bronze and locked with a mighty bolt. Through this we would push the goats, each one squealing miserably in its final moments. For many days I felt pity each time I pushed the goat through the bars of the cage, for the Beasts would eat them in little more than a mouthful, the sounds of breaking bones, a short scream from the animal, then the long thick tongue of the Beast would creep along its jaw. And all the while the Beasts lay silent, their red eyes all but closed against the brightness of the day. But I knew that they watched.

 

Over the many days that we poured water into the cages, and forced the pitiful goats through the small grates, I came to know the Beasts. In the three cages near the foredeck the females and young paced and slept. In the three cages below the rear deck, larger young and older males were held. These were the larger beasts, fearsome to behold when only a few cubits and bronze bars stood between. In the last cage two large older males and one younger male lay. One of the older males had suffered a wound, mayhap when an arrow or spear had pierced its eye. The skin above the eye was marked by a long scar, and the eye was blind and white. Nabob would point to the white eye and call out the word Buta. I did not know the meaning of this word but I came to know the Beast by this name. And Buta came to know me. For he would turn his head, his single red eye following me if I passed by the cage. And if I stood near to the cages when speaking with Naguib or Nabob, Buta’s head would lift and turn to me. At first I was fearful, for it knew my voice. But after many days passed I knew, too, that the Beast would always hear my voice when food and water came, so that when it heard me speak, it looked to the sound for its next meal.

 

As we sailed through the Pillars of Hercules the sun was bright on the blue water. The straight between the Pillars was wide, greater even than a day of sailing with a strong breeze, the Pillars themselves high and rocky in the distance. It was this day that one of the Nubians chose to leave us. We were passing by the Pillars, our sails full, the seas long and green beneath us, the sun high above, when there were shouts of surprise. We all ran to the stern. A young Nubian had jumped into the green waters and was swimming towards the distant shore. One of the Nubians called his name. Dadsoul! I had seen him many times at the sails but I had spoken little with him. He was only a young boy, but quite tall and sturdy. I wondered why he had leapt from the ship, for the wind was rising and the shore a great distance.

 

As we moved quickly through the water and the waves rode high and white behind us, we soon lost sight of the young man. The Nubians all ran to Naguib, shouting and waving their arms, their eyes white and flashing. I knew that they wished to turn the ship about. But the wind was strong and rising, our ship rolling heavily between the long waves. Naguib looked to the seas, which now rose, crested and green, behind our ship, and to our sails, filled and bursting in the wind. He turned back to the Nubians. I could not hear what he said but the Nubians all screamed as one, then ran to the railing at the stern, crying out and weeping.

 

Naguib was quite angry at what had happened, and for some time afterward all on the ship were quiet, as if chastened. Our journey had been so free of worry that I truly believe all on board were shocked when the young man leapt into the sea. Was there danger out there that we did not know of? Was it simply that he wished to return to his home? What did he know that we did not? These were the thoughts that passed through my head and, I knew, through the heads of my comrades. We will never know if Dadsoul was able to swim to shore, but I have always believed in my heart that he did. And when I look back on what was to happen in the many months and years that followed, I am still not certain that his act was not the better choice. I will leave that for you to think upon.

 

As I watched the Pillars fall behind us I felt the movement of our boat change, the short rolling waves of the sea becoming longer, and deeper. And the colour of the water began to change, the bright blue of the Medi turning a dark deep green. In front of us stretched a boundless horizon and, as I looked out on this, I felt fear move again in my chest. What was I, Agymah Chahine, furniture maker of Memphis, doing here? Why was I on this ship, in the middle of this large and very frightening ocean? Who were these people that travelled with me? What were these terrible Beasts that we transported? And where, in the name of Ra, was the land of Gond? These were some of the questions I put to Naguib, late in the afternoon, but two days sail from the Pillars. Some he would answer. Some he could not answer. Our passage was now south along the coast of Maroc and, as the ship leaned and rolled with the wind, the sun falling into the ink-like darkness of the water, I knew that our journey was to be long. And with many perils. It is well that I did not know how long. Or how many perils.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the seventh night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah,, at the house of Agymah and Eti, in the City of Memphis, in the fourth year of the Ox.)

Part VIII – By the Coast of Maroc

(Here is written the eighth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, at the house of Agymah and Eti, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Imhotep, Son of Shariff, is absent as his jaw is swollen, the priests having taken a rotten tooth two days past.)

 

The days dawned bright and warm as we sailed south. Far to our left, or as Naguib informed us – to our port side – we could see the white rocky hills of Maroc, patched with green, trails of smoke where a small oasis or town nestled. To our right – our starboard side – stretched the wide blue of the ocean. It terrified me. I had never seen anything so flat or without feature yet so filled with a sense of menace. I was pleased that Naguib ordered the Nubians to steer the ship closer to land. Even though we had been at sea for little more than two score of days, already our water barrels were all but empty. The thirst of the Beast had been greater than expected and so Naguib began surveying the land in the distance, seeking a likely place to make landfall and seek water and further provisions for the ship.

 

And so it was, as the sun fell into the sea and the shadows grew, that we ran our great ship slowly onto the sand of a golden beach, in a small, shallow bay on the southern shores of Maroc. We had chosen the mid tide, knowing that we might safely ground the ship but still sail free with ease when the full tide returned. While Omar the Centurion, Hequaib and several of the Nubians went forth in the dhows to gather food and water, all others began repairs of the ship. We replaced or spliced worn ropes and torn sails, hauling the large pieces of hemp from the lower decks. The animal pens and the Beast’s cages were sluiced with water we hauled from the sea in leather buckets. Hatches were cast open to allow the lower decks some fresh air. And when work had finished many of the crew jumped into the cool waters of the bay.

 

It was as I sat with Naguib on the foredeck in the warmth of the early evening, waiting the return of Omar and the Nubians, Naguib chewing his betel leaves, that I asked him of the land of Gond. Where was it? How far must we travel? Was it true that we would be at sea for seven moons? Why must the Beasts be transported so far? And on and on I went until Naguib threw up his hands and said that he would tell me. Naguib told me that he had spoken with the Centurions before we sailed from Heliopolis. He told me of the task they had proposed on behalf of the Pharaoh. The Beasts were to be transported far away, to a land that none other than the Pharaoh had ever seen. And even the Pharaoh had seen it only in his dreams. The Centurions had described it as a land of golden sand and green forests, of rivers of sweet water and bountiful with fish, of birds and other animals so plentiful that the Beast could feed forever and never know hunger, so that it would never again wish to venture into the land of Egypt.

 

But how far I asked. When would we return to Heliopolis? Indeed, when would we return to our homes in Memphis? At this Naguib hung his head for he could not say. He did not know how far away lay the land of Gond but he trusted that the Centurions spoke the truth, that we should return home within seven moons. When I pointed to the far horizons of the ocean he looked sad for he knew that what I said was true. Perhaps we would not be returning to our homes within seven moons. Perhaps we would not be returning to our homes for a very long time.

 

But it was then that we were interrupted, the rattle of the oars and the curses of Omar the Centurion loud to our ears as he and Hequaib brought the dhows back to the ship. Already we could feel the ship moving as the tide turned so we hastened to assist Omar and the Nubians. They had gathered much water and good food in their search and brought a full load to the ship. The dhows were low in the water with many filled water barrels and baskets of fruit. There was also a number of small dead animals the like of which I had never seen. They resembled a goat but were both taller and less sturdy. One of the Nubians pointed to them and made a sound that sounded like Ran. From that time we called all animals Ran.

 

As we unloaded the dhow I saw Omar, Hequaib and Naguib speaking. Omar was red faced and angry and I heard him say to Naguib that Moeses, another of the Nubians, had run off while they searched, and that only two had returned with him. Naguib again took on a sad look and shook his head. We had been at sea not three score of days and nights and already two members of our crew were lost, one man in each of the two days past. It did not auger well. I looked at the others around me and hoped that no more would leave, for the ship was large and, though all were hardy, our tasks would be that much the greater should we lose any more of our comrades.

 

  • * *

 

We sailed south for many days, the wind at our backs, the skies blue and spotted with white clouds, the vast ocean grim and dark, stretching to the far horizons. The sun burned down upon us and each day seemed hotter than the last. The men lay unmoving under the shade of the sails, as did the great Beasts. The goats bawled piteously in their putrid hold, and our daily porridge seemed to have more weevils than ever. Naguib held the ship close to the coast for much of our voyage, only once venturing so far from shore that we could but see the smudge of the land in the distance. We sailed forth as to avoid the wide sandy mouth of a huge river, so vast that even so far from shore, when we cast our buckets into the sea they were filled with fresh water.

 

Each day grew hot and bright until the early afternoon, when dark clouds would gather overhead, and bright bolts of lightning split the sky, cracks of thunder so loud that the very air would flutter against our flimsy clothes, the Beasts growling and twitching in their sleep, their red eyes flickering. At the last crack of thunder the heavens opened, the rain so heavy that it poured off the sails above the cages of the Beasts, filling the drinking troughs and sluicing the filth and dirt from the deck. Each afternoon we opened the hatches and allowed the water to pour through, drenching the miserable goats, but also cooling them and cleansing their stalls.

 

When we were some four score of days from the Pillars of Hercules the weather began to cool. The days were less bright and the early mornings brought thick sea fog that stayed until the sun rose above us. On these mornings Minkaf’s porridge was very welcome. And in the afternoons it did not rain as much. The nights were also colder, and men began to dress from the store of clothes in the rooms on the second deck. Sandals were replaced with leather boots and leggings, flimsy singlets with leather jackets that laced at the neck and wrist. In but a few days we learned why the strange clothing had been placed in the storeroom.

 

Twice on our journey south Naguib took the ship in to land and we sent forth a small group to secure water and other food. These expeditions were led by Omar the Centurion. It was usual for him to take Hequaib and six or seven of the Nubians to assist, and sometimes Mushariff, because all were tall and strong, but on one occasion he allowed Isesi to join them. On their return to the ship Isesi was in great pain and sat upon the foredeck and would not speak with anyone. Hequaib said that Isesi had gone into the bushes to relieve himself and had cleaned his body with the soft leaves of a nearby tree. It was not long before he was scratching and complaining. At last one of the Nubians explained to Omar and Hequaib that Isesi had cleaned himself with the ‘burning leaf’. After speaking with the Nubian, Omar told us that the leaves of this tree were covered with small splinters, as fine as the finest hair, that pierced the skin and caused it to redden and blister. As it is with men from any land, and of any time, Isesi was given little sympathy. Henceforth he became known as ‘Blister Bum’. To this day I smile when I think of it.

 

It was at this time that we found what lay within the locked room on the second deck. Many nights had been passed as we lay upon the decks, telling to each other stories of what might lie within, of wealth, of riches, of fine foods and drink, of the softest cloths, of great weapons. On our second landing to seek food and water we saw in the distance some smoke rising above the forest of green. At this, Omar the Centurion and Naguib descended to the second deck, taking Isesi and the Omars and two Nubians with them. There they opened the locked room. Of course we all followed them and crowded near to see what was within the room. The room was long and narrow, crouched along one side of the ship behind the steps that reached down from the upper deck. Each side of the room was lined with large barrels, each barrel secured at the top with a flat wooden lid over which were passed thickly braided cords of hemp, tied and then touched with wax to seal them. Above the barrels were sturdy shelves, each fitted with a panel that could swing back and forth on hinges of bronze. These, too, were sealed with wax.

 

We all watched, our breath fast in our chests, as Naguib broke the seals upon the barrel nearest the door. You can imagine our surprise when, as he raised the wooden lid, there spilled forth a torrent of beads of many colours. There were beads of red and black lacquer, beads of green, red and blue, polished stones of different lustres with small holes drilled through their breadth, beads as small as the dot in my eye, beads larger than my biggest toe, beads the colour of the sea, the sunset, the sky, the green of the trees, the dark of the storm clouds, of lapis lazuli, and of the sun flowers of the Nile. So many beads. So many colours. We looked at Omar the Centurion and Naguib in surprise. Naguib laughed and held up his hands as if to plead with us. What of it he said. If there are peoples here that we must barter with to secure our food and water then it is indeed sensible that we have something we can trade.

 

When this was explained to us it did indeed seem sensible. But when we opened other barrels we saw that they did not hold beads. We saw fine clothes with pretty stones attached, jars of sweet smelling ointments and creams, finely crafted sandals with gold leaf and beads, bolts of fine cotton, white as sea foam and soft as a maiden’s breast, knives with handles of ivory, their blades of bronze, the Pharaoh’s crest beaten into the metal. I recall that even Naguib and Omar the Centurion paused at this, at the sight of so much wealth. Indeed we had been given much to undertake this journey. And as we looked at the many barrels and the overflowing shelves we realised that truly we carried a great fortune on this ship. I felt a strange disquiet as I gazed at these riches. And I knew as I watched the faces of my comrades that this would be the cause of much unrest. But that came later.

 

  • * *

 

On the day that we saw the smoke above the trees, Omar went forth to seek water and food, carrying with him a number of the leather satchels filled with beads and cloth. When he and the Nubians returned later that day the dhows were overflowing. With barrels of water and bundles of dried meats tied with cords made from grasses, baskets filled with the bright colours of many fruits, and a score of yellow gourds, dried out husks that were filled with a sour broth that smelled of grain but tasted like ambrosia. Omar said that there was a small village on the far side of the trees, and it was from this village that the smoke had come. He said that the inhabitants were a tall people, somewhat like the Nubians in the colour of their skins, but of finer bones and girth, their bodies long and slender. Omar told us that the tall ones were hospitable and kind, and that they did not appear surprised when Omar and the Nubians appeared from the trees. After drinking tea, and eating a mixture of grains and boiled meats, Omar showed the tall ones the empty water barrels and baskets and opened his satchels of beads and cloth. Omar said that the tall ones must have had contact with other traders, as they appeared to know what was required without many words.

The tall ones were generous. They brought forth fruit and water and dried meats and several dead Ran. And many vegetables. They also gave a basket filled with betel leaves. Omar knew that Naguib would be happy indeed. The Nubians bundled the goods together, tied within pieces of old sail, and attached these to long poles in order that they might be carried by two men. When all goods had been bundled and tied to poles Omar handed many satchels of cloth and beads to the leader of the tall ones. Omar said that the tall ones were very pleased, sharing the beads and cloth among themselves and smiling and laughing.

 

The goods that Omar purchased from the tall ones were of finest quality, as fine even as those that our leaders had placed within our ship before leaving Heliopolis. And the fruit and vegetables were welcome in a diet that had become, at best, a meal of porridge, dried meats, a handful of nuts and some stale biscuits, leavened on alternate days with the last of our dates. And of course our wine. Some barrels of the wine had soured in the heat as we sailed south, for try as we might, on some days it was so hot on the second deck that even the largest of men might fall senseless to the floor if they stayed too long tending the goats or the provisions. So the yeasty broth contained in the yellow gourds was indeed welcome, and we supped from it that night as we feasted on roasted Ran and baked vegetables that tasted as do the yams of our homeland.

 

But there is ever the worm of doubt, the evil Djinn of envy, that lurks in the eyes of men. I have seen it in the bazaars and souqs in Abydos and Memphis, the thin, hungry gaze of they who would steal from you anything of value, a malevolence in their eyes that has always surprised me. Why was it that these men, or sometimes women, looked so? Was it a lifetime of hardship and want that had brought them to this place? Was this indeed the way of the world? That we should prey upon our brothers and sisters and, without care or compassion for their life or their hopes, take from them whatever we wished? Or was it that I, growing up well fed and well tended by my parents, had no knowledge of the life of others? I asked myself how this could make us any more than animals. Indeed, even the animal will care for its young and share its food. But so it was that in the midst of our feasting and laughing, there was a band of men in our midst who could think of nothing but the wealth below decks. And who, as they drank more from the gourds, began to see that wealth as their right. And that all others on board had banded together to deny them that wealth. This is what greed and wine will do to the mind of man, turn it to the evil side and poison it with ill thoughts and deeds.

 

I felt Naguib’s hand, heavy upon my shoulder. His voice growled close by my ear. “There are great riches here Agi. We must take care. There will be men among us that hunger for these riches. And they will place these riches above any care they may have for their comrades. Keep your eyes open Agi. And keep your weapons near.”

 

My skin grew cold at Naguib’s words. As the night cooled around me, our ship moving silently upon rolling seas, I looked about me, at my comrades. Together we had see great perils, fought terrible battles, and sailed upon seas without end. Surely these men were my friends. Was that not so? Naguib’s words were to echo in my mind over many nights, such that my sleep was peopled with strange faces that snarled and cried to me, and I awoke with great weariness and eyes of blood for many days. Had I but known these to be omens. But I did not.

 

  • * *

 

(Here is written the eighth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, at the house of Agymah and Eti, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox Imhotep, Son of Shariff, is at his mother’s house, where she nurses him for he has a poisoned jaw. My brothers Pamu and Suad have travelled from Saqqara, where they grow grains on the banks of the Nile. They sit at the fire and break bread and drink tea with Agymah and Eti.)

Part IX – The Djinn of Envy

(Here is written the ninth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, at the house of Agymah and Eti, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Pamu and Paser assist. Imhotep remains in his bed.)

 

Our journey south continued, the low green hills of Maroc falling behind. For many days we followed a rocky shore. Gone were the green slopes and golden beaches. Now only dark cliffs of rock hung above the crashing seas, their peaks greater than one hundred, nay two hundred cubits from the tip of our tallest mast, their faces painted with seams of grey and white, or split by deep cracks of darkness that saw no sun. At their foot, the deep blue of the waves crashed against a crumbled maze of fallen rock, white with the droppings of birds, and running yellow with foam Gone were the green slopes and golden beaches. Now only dark cliffs of rock hung above the crashing seas, their peaks greater than one hundred, nay two hundred cubits from the tip of our tall mast, their faces painted with seams of grey and white, or split by deep cracks of darkness that saw no sun. And as did the shore grow dark and forbidding, so did the spirit upon our mighty ship.

 

It was now all but a half score of days since we had traded with the tall ones. Late in the evening the Omars and Isesi were sitting on the rear deck at the long arm of the tiller. I sat close by while Naguib and Omar the Centurion leaned against the rail. Minkaf sat on the other side of the rear deck, stitching a large piece of hempen sail. To his surprise and delight Minkaf had found that he had a skill for sailing and enjoyed it greatly. It is indeed a great shame that he did not bring the same skill to his cooking. But this was not our concern, for at the other end of the ship, huddled together under the kitchen sail, Hequaib and a small group of Nubians sat muttering. As we sat and watched, they gathered themselves close together, stealing glances toward us every now and then. Even the Omars, usually the most docile and uninterested of all people, could smell trouble.

 

But I knew it was not the smell of trouble that filled the noses of Hequaib and his comrades. It was the smell of the wealth on our lower deck. And wealth or the smell of such will always turn men’s minds. My father Suad often said this and to this day I know he spoke the truth. But six moons had passed of our journey and already we had seen two of our number forsake us and flee. And now the smell of riches swirled through the ship, poisoning minds and turning heads. It would take a strong man to stand against such a potion of disquiet.

 

Naguib was such a man. And Omar the Centurion, too, a man of strength. That very night they opened the cabinets below the mast and took forth our weapons and stood guard on the rear deck. And we were indeed of great fortune to be served by men such as these. For had we not, I am sure that they and all we others of the crew would have perished in the days that followed, our lives taken from us to sate the foul God of Greed.

 

That night I slept on the rear deck, beside Naguib and the Omars. But I did not sleep well. The deck was hard beneath me and I awoke many times, only to fall back into a troubled and restless slumber. My thoughts were filled with swirling fog, and peopled with demons whose eyes shone red in the darkness, and other forms that lurked deep in the mist, their voices coming in strange tongues, their shapes shifting and reforming, but always menacing. I felt Naguib’s hand on my shoulder in the hour before dawn and I rose, my eyes rough with sleep, my bones aching from the cold, hard timber that I lay upon. Naguib grinned at me. He and the Omars had not slept, sharing instead the long hours of the night at the tiller. And, I knew, watching Hequaib and his Nubian band.

 

I gathered my cloak about me and stood at the sternpost. To our starboard the sea stretched dark and flat until it disappeared into the horizon. Its colour was that of rotten meat, black with the green of verdigris, flecked with clots of brownish foam. Though the light was poor, far away, to our port side, I could see the dark shape of land. The clouds hung low above our ship, heavy, laden with rain. The air was wet. A single shaft of sunlight broke the clouds off our port side, carving a golden path to the turgid sea. It looked like the arm of a god. I touched the amulet at my throat and whispered a small prayer to Osiris. When I looked to the foredeck I could see that Hequaib and the Nubians remained huddled under their cloaks under the kitchen sail. They were all awake and watched Minkaff, who had also arisen in the dim light, as he kindled a fire and began preparations for our breakfast. Beside me Naguib snorted.

 

“Let’s hope the porridge has some meat in it” he said, his hand on the tiller “Or perhaps some dates.” I saw that he watched Hequaib, and that Hequaib’s eyes also rested on Naguib. Naguib snorted again and looked at me. He spoke quietly.

 

“We must watch that man Agi. I thought him a friend, but I see a fire in his eyes that fills me with fear. He now has the hunger for gold in his heart. I have seen this many times. When the hunger takes men they become as thieves in the night, beyond the reason of ordinary men, watching and waiting until they judge it time to strike, to take what they have not earned, and caring not for the hurt or loss they wreak upon others.” His gaze flickered from me to the group of men under the kitchen sail. He snorted again. “And the Nubians?” he asked. “What of them? They are easily led. An offer of gold or beads, of wine or women, and they will do anything.”

 

At this Naguib turned from me and pulled on the tiller arm, turning our mighty ship across the wind. I heard the creaking of the timbers and the loud crack as the sail turned in the wind and the ropes tightened. The sails stretched tight above us, filled with the wind. Around us the sea was grey and flecked with white, waves rolling beneath us and beating against the hull with a slow steady beat, like that of a drum. The wind was cold against my skin so I pulled my cloak close around me. Naguib’s voice came again.

 

“Keep a sharp eye and a clear head Agi. Watch carefully. I know in my heart that Hequaib has crossed to the dark side. He will strike when we least expect it.”

 

With that Naguib handed the tiller to Isesi then lay upon the deck and pulled his cloak about him. He was asleep in but a moment. The Omars also lay asleep against the sternpost, their faces covered, their snores loud. It reminded me greatly of my work as a carpenter, for the sound of their snores was much as the sound of my saw as it cuts the timber. Above me the clouds began to part, bars of sunlight piercing the grey mists, their beams touching the waves and turning the water the colour of burnished lead. The wind seemed to strengthen and I leaned hard against the tiller arm. I watched as Minkaff began serving his breakfast. I could see that it was again porridge, but I saw also that he garnished it with meat and dates. No doubt Naguib would think that a true feast.

 

Behind Minkaff, close by the foredeck, I saw that Hequaib and his Nubians sat eating, their eyes still bright and burning. I gripped the tiller arm with more strength. I would watch carefully indeed. I vowed always to be vigilant, for I knew that a man’s mind could be turned with ease, a strange being, a beautiful woman, a loud voice, and when turned, pay no heed to the dangers that linger at his side. But I was not vigilant. And my comrades were not vigilant. And for this I was to curse myself for many moons, for it all but brought about our undoing.

 

  • * *

 

As it is with all troubles that arise within the life of man, this one came upon us when least expected. Truly, we knew that Hequaib and the Nubians had evil in their hearts. Thus it was that I could find no good reason for our lack of care. But, as always, the seas are filled with dangers, and when that danger came it took with it our thoughts, and in that moment the demon of greed took Hequaib’s hand, and those of the Nubians, and turned it against his comrades. But let me tell it as it happened.

 

On the morning of Hequaib’s death, I awoke to a sky of fire. A strange light filled the heavens and fell upon us, turning our faces and the decks, even the sails of our mighty ship, the colour of blood. To the east the clouds boiled black at the horizon, but their tops glowed like the rubies that the priests carry in the hilts of their sceptres, deep reds and purples streaking the sky and the sea. A faint roaring filled the air, as of a distant waterfall. I could see the Omars and some of the Nubians crowded at the foredeck railing, looking at the seas that rolled beneath our ship, their hands weaving strange symbols, their voices muted and fearful. Naguib also stood at the railing, his eyes cast to the south, his head turned so as to better catch the strange sound. What now I thought. What now could it be that comes to test us? I heard my bones creak as I climbed to my feet.

 

Our ship moved only slowly upon the sea, the waves flattened, as if pressed down by a heavy hand, the water the colour of the brine in our bilge, green and dark and filled with foreboding, strange smells and swirling shapes. The wind was fitful, at once strong before weakening to a mere zephyr that barely filled our sails. Around us the seas stretched without feature, the horizon hidden in a ruby haze to the east, to the west only darkness. I could see no land. But faint upon the wind came the strange sound. I stopped and looked to each side of the ship but could see nothing. It is indeed strange I thought, for it sounds like the roar of many people, as if from the throats of a great throng as it welcomed its leader, and as it is with the people of Memphis when the Pharaoh stands in his golden chariot as it passes through the streets of the old city.

 

“What is that sound Naguib?” I asked. “Is it that of many people? Are we so close to land?”

 

For a long moment Naguib did not speak. And as he stood silently at the railing the strange sounds became loud in my ears. The Omars and Isesi joined Naguib and Minkaff at the railing. The Nubians stood on the rear deck, fearful in the yellow light, their skins sickly and pale, their lips wet and shivering on their faces. Truly, the Nubian is a fine and strong person, handsome and tall, his skin so black that it burns blue in the sunlight. But a fearful Nubian? I have not yet seen so ugly a sight. I remember I shook my head in despair. How were we to return safely home if each time we see a strange beast or suffer a hindrance to our journey that we become as weeping women? But my thoughts were swept away in a moment as Naguib leapt from the railing, his face as pale as the moon, his eyes deep and black and filled with fear. He shouted and pointed to the sails.

 

“It is the mouth of the sea” he shouted. “I have seen it near the isle of Creta in the far west of the Medi. But only once before and on a day such as this, the seas dark and flat, the sky filled with blood. I have seen it take ships to a watery grave. Mighty ships, even mightier than our sturdy ship, sucked down into the darkness until all were lost, all drowned in darkness and cold.” He pointed again to the sails. “More sail” he called. “If you want to live we must have more sail.”

 

But when men are faced with an unseen danger they become as goats. And so as Naguib looked about, shouting and pointing at the rigging and the sails that is what he saw, a flock of brainless goats, milling and fearful, their faces clouded and uncertain, their heads turning to each side. From what was it that we must flee? What was the strange noise? What was the mouth of the sea? Naguib’s voice was filled with fear, and as with a pestilence so the fear spread to all on board. But fear of what? Naguib cast his arms about, his head turning from side to side, his face purple with fear and rage. Then he ran to the foredeck and stood at the bow, his arm pointing to the south. “There” he cried. “There is the mouth of the sea. It will take us in but a moment. Look to it and see your own deaths. Sail. More sail. If you wish to live.”

 

And behind Naguib we beheld a sight of horror. For the sea had indeed opened its maw and before us lay a pit of darkness, whirling like the winds that swirl through the desert, filled not with sand, but instead with water, dark and swollen with lumps of foam and the waste of the ocean. As the sea fell into the darkness it gave forth a mighty roar, and spray and wind flew from the pit, white plumes leaping high into the air above us, so that water fell as rain upon our faces. And the roar of the wind and the spray was so great that it drove all thought from our heads, and our mighty ship shook as if a toy of the Gods, cast about on the ocean as if by a willful child.

 

As the ocean was pulled into the dark pit, so was our mighty ship dragged ever closer to the precipice. Around me the Nubians gabbled in fear. Again I thought that they cried as if a gaggle of young women, their hands flapping, their eyes rolling, their heads turning this way and that. I knew that they could not aid us if we were to escape this danger. For as we cried out in fear at that terrible sight so did we leap to the sails, hauling with a strength born of necessity, knowing that our fates were with the Gods of the Wind, for if our sails did not fill and pull our ship from this dark current, then our lives were forfeit. The Nubians knelt at the railing, gibbering and crying, their hands tight on the hempen ropes. Even young women showed greater courage than these.

 

Our ship drew ever closer and leaned toward the pit, the timbers screamed and the sails snapped, and for long moments I believed that the Gods had forsaken us. Then, as our ship leaned in the water and the ocean howled, a gust of wind filled our mainsail, no more than a breath. I felt hope flow through me as our ship turned, again not more than a hands breadth, but enough that when the next breath of wind came the sails filled even further. Naguib cried out in hope and he and the Omars fell against the tiller, pulling it hard to the left so as to steer our ship away from the darkness of the pit. The roar of the sea filled our heads, so loud that I could not hear Naguib’s shouts and he was no more than one arm span from me. Our ship turned slowly, so slowly that I feared it was already too late. I, too, threw my weight against the tiller and was joined by Mushariff. Together we pushed hard while Naguib and the Omars pulled and, as its timbers groaned, our ship began to turn, the sails swelling white and full as the wind rose.

 

It seemed that a full lifetime passed but in truth it was not more than a few moments. For in those few short moments we lived a lifetime of fear, the timbers of our ship screaming as the wind and the water fought for victory. For long moments I did not breathe, such that as our ship settled again upon the waves and the wind pushed us further from the dark pit, the breath burst from my chest with a loud cry. I saw the Omars slap each other upon the shoulder, and I felt Naguib’s mighty fist fall on my arm. Nabob, who but a short time before was gabbling madly with his countrymen and of no use to anyone, not even to a washer woman or a carrier of camel dung, came forward, his teeth large and yellow, his eyes bright. Mushariff looked at Nabob and sniffed loudly, then spat red betel over the railing.

 

But then, as we babbled to each other in happiness, the evil Djinn of greed rose behind us. As I reached out my hand to Nabob, I saw his face change, a look of surprise shaping his dark features. I saw the blood run from his brow. And I heard the screams and shouts of Naguib and the Omars. As Nabob fell to the deck I saw that Hequaib and three Nubians had leapt to the cabinets and secured our weapons. Nabob lay at my feet, a bronze axe cloven to his head, the blood spilling dark and red across our deck. I stood above him, my body like stone, as I saw his spirit leave him. It is also certain, were it not for Naguib’s shout, that I might have joined Nabob, for as Naguib shouted and I leapt to the railing, another bronze axe cut through the air by my shoulder. It was Protokei, the Nubian. He fell back as one of the Omars thrust a spear at his chest.

 

The battle that took place on our mighty ship that day was a terrible thing. And mayhap it was mere fortune that saved us all from a watery grave. For I am sure that Hequaib and his fellow thieves would have cast us forth into the waters with no thought for our lives. I know this for I looked into their eyes. But the Gods again spared us. In his greed and anger one of the Nubians, I saw that it was Protos, moved too close to the cages and, as he thrust his spear towards Naguib, so did the claw of the mighty Beast pass through the bars of the cage and pierce his shoulder. Protos screamed in pain and fear but nothing could save him. The Beast drew Protos against the bars of the cage and, in the blink of an eye, it tore him to pieces. At this Hequaib and the other Nubians quailed, such that Naguib was able to grasp one of the large wooden pins that secure our ropes and sails, and struck down the Nubian that stood closest. Temsi fell to the deck, his blood spilling across the timbers.

 

Only two of the evildoers remained, Hequaib and Protokei, and now, faced with certain defeat, they threw down their weapons and ran to the aft deck, screaming and lamenting their fate. Naguib and the Omars followed, along with other members of our crew. I remained at the tiller, unmoving, the blood of Nabob running beneath my sandals, the blood of the slain Nubians fresh against the cage and on the timbers of the deck.

 

I saw that Hequaib and the Nubian now stood at the railing of the forward deck, their faces red and angry. I could not hear what was said but after only a moment both Hequaib and the Nubian leapt from the railing. Naguib and the Omars ran to the railing and looked over and I watched them, believing that Naguib would turn and order us to the sails, to bring our mighty ship to a halt so as to bring Hequaib and the Nubian back on board. But Naguib did not turn, and the Omars did not turn, and when I looked behind, across the railing of the rear deck, I saw the dark heads as they bobbed in our wake. In the far distance, off our port side, two small islands rose from the sea. As I watched I saw that Hequaib and the Nubian might swim to the islands. But truly it was a great distance and, even though these men had sought to harm us, still I feared a little for their lives. I do not know if they were able to swim to safety. I have always hoped that they did so. I did say this to Naguib only one time, many weeks later. But he sniffed and said to me that the Gods would only watch over those that watch over others. When I said I did not understand his words, he would not speak with me again about Hequaib or the Nubians.

 

Our mighty ship was again chastened and silent, all on board filled with sadness and fear. How many more of our comrades would we lose? In but moments five more of our band had departed, two into the dark waters, three unto the afterlife. I feared that our journey was filled with bad omens.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the ninth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, assisted by Pamu, Son of Agymah, and Paser, son of Khanefer and Taheret, at the house of Agymah and Eti, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox.)

Part X – Giants of the Deep

(Here is written the tenth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, at the house of Agymah and Eti, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox.)

 

And so we continued our journey south, each day cooler than that before, the spray of the sea cold and icy, the sun weak in the sky, the ocean dark and forbidding. All on board now wore the long leggings and boots of leather, and the leather shirts with hair and wool lining. In the mornings the rigging was coated with ice, slippery and cold to the touch, so the warmth of the leggings and thick boots was indeed welcome.

 

But as we sailed further south we were not a happy ship. We had started our journey with a crew of one score and four. But seven of our number were now lost. For even the most lowly of Gods this was inauspicious. All on board knew this so I prayed silently to both Ra and Osiris that night that they might bring us home safely. Naguib was concerned that should we lose any more of our comrades, if by death or desertion or by accident, then it would become very difficult to sail the large ship. And for this to be so at this early time in our journey was to fill Naguib’s heart with worry. And because Naguib worried, so did we all. But for all our worry and woes we did not stop. We sailed on. For to return was to face failure and possible death. To sail on was also to face failure and possible death. But should we continue there was at least a hope of success. That we would deliver our cargo to the land of Gond, and that we would journey home to the cheers of the crowds and the thanks of the Pharaoh and his court. I must admit it did seem but a dream as we sailed ever deeper into the cold.

 

And it was at this time also that we first saw the monsters of the deep, having been at sea greater than four moons since our passage through the Pillars. The day, like many others, dawned cold and dull, the sea covered with a thick mist that swirled through the rigging of the ship. I could not see even the tops of the masts on that morning and, when I stood on the foredeck and looked to the rear deck, over the cages of the Beasts, I could see only the shadows of Naguib and Omar and the Nubians who held the long arm of the tiller. When moving the ship through the mist Naguib would ask that we folded the sail of the second mast, leaving only the smaller sail of the front mast to catch any wind. But there was often little wind as the mist lay heavy on the water, and so we moved slowly, the water slapping lightly against the sides of our ship, two Nubians crouched on the bow. One held a drop line and leaden weight, which he cast before the ship to know how much water lay beneath our keel. The other watched for rocks in the water.

 

It was then that we heard the strange roaring sound. It seemed to come from our front but of this we could not be sure, for the thickness of the mist was such as to make all sounds seem dull and leaden, and seemingly to echo from all sides. Then it came again and the Nubians at the bow fell back, shouting in fear, for there, at the front of our ship, a monster lay atop the grey ocean, water and foam spraying high in the air from an opening at its back. Never had we seen the like, and many men fell to the deck and began calling on Osiris and other Gods to save them. Again the creature roared and sprayed water in the air and I heard Isesi squealing with fear. As I ran toward our weapons rack I thought to myself that he sometimes sounded like a young girl, and I felt like beating him. But these thoughts were soon gone as the creature was joined by its brethren, all huge and black, all rolling and sliding on the surface of the water, bolts of spray and foam leaping into the sky. Both the Omars and I took a sheaf of arrows and a long bow from the rack and ran to the front of the ship. Close behind me Naguib and Omar the Centurion came, each carrying a spear. The Nubians at the bow were still shouting in terror as we ran toward them. They crouched under the kitchen sail, their hands over their faces, wailing and weeping. Even worse than young girls I thought. More like babies.

 

We threw ourselves against the railing on the foredeck as the creatures roared again, water and foam raining down upon us. I notched an arrow and peered over the railing. But Naguib’s hand fell upon my shoulder and I did not loose the shaft at the rolling black shapes. He motioned that I should wait, so together we watched. The huge black shapes were joined by many smaller ones, all blowing clouds of spray and foam into the sky. As we watched, several lifted huge tails into the air and slapped them down onto the water, again sending forth huge waves and splashes of foam and water. I think it was then that I realised that these were not monsters, not really, though their was size such that they were fearsome. I saw now that they giant fishes, and that they now moved with our boat through the water, and we could see their tails moving back and forth.

 

Indeed they were giants, the like of which none of us had ever seen. These fish were larger than anything that you could imagine, large enough to feed all that lived in a large town. Nay. Even greater. Enough even to feed all that lived in a city such as Luxor. Each of the elder fish was greater than three score cubits in length. And of the younger fish each measured not less than two score cubits from head to tail. The top of each fish was black and gleaming but when they rolled in the water we could see that their undersides were white like that of an egrets feathers. Each fish had a huge mouth but no teeth that we could see. They did not seem to be a fierce animal and, as our ship sailed slowly through the mist, we watched these strange monsters of the deep. The larger ones swam in a wide arc, the smaller ones within. It reminded me of our last battles with the Beast, of the way in which the elder Beasts sought to protect the younger. I must admit that it seemed strange to me that a fish could feel so for its young. Even the Nubians came forward and crouched at the rail. But they watched with fear, their eyes rolling white against their dark skin. Mushariff stood beside me. He snorted and spat more betel over the railing.

 

As the giant fishes swam beside our mighty ship I looked around me at my comrades. They were a strange manner of men. Did I appear to them as they appeared to me? Their bodies clothed in brown and yellowed leathers, their heads adorned with strange headwear with laces beneath their chins, their feet covered in large leather boots filled with hair and fur? Was my skin now so brown that when held against the burnished timbers of the deck there was little to tell them apart? Did my eyes also seem so white against the dark of my skin that they bulged from my head? Even Naguib now looked as if one with the Nubians, his face so dark that the purple stain had all but disappeared. But his large nose remained red as always. And, of course, the mighty Beasts, their eyes staring red in the night, their terrible claws sheathed by day as they slept, their appearance so fiercesome, so terrible that, even though I saw them each day, still each morning when my eyes came upon them I would gasp a breath and feel a shiver of fear run through my chest. And below deck the piteous bawling of the remaining goats. By Ra and Osiris we were a strange band indeed and our journey, if we had but known, was about to become stranger still as we journeyed ever further into the unknown.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the tenth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, at the house of Agymah and Eti, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Paser again grinds the ink. Pamu watches over him.)

Part XI – A Great Storm

(Here is written the eleventh night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, at the house of Agymah and Eti, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox.)

 

So where is that layabout Imhotep? In this last month we have written no more than seven nights and already he has fallen by the way. From a rotten tooth no less. How many times have we told him that his love of ba’k’lava will both rot his teeth and fatten his belly? When I was young, if we suffered an ache of the jaw, it was but a quick trip to the temple, the priest would rub a dark ointment upon the wound, then quickly tear out the offending tooth. In truth it was hurtful, but the ointment, which was made from the poppy flower and applied generously by the priest, had magical properties. I remember that it was always a day or two before the ache returned. It seems that young people now have little stamina. It is not like it was when I was a boy.

 

Of course, that sounds very much like the words my father spoke when I was younger. Perhaps that is another truth of nature, that the elders will forever think the young are lazy. And, of course, the young will forever think the elders confused in their thinking, for the things that matter most, and most clearly, to a man of my years, have but little part in the thinking of my children. This I have learned over a long life. But again I ramble and I see the beady eye of my daughter, fastened upon me like a limpet to the side of a ship. And so I return to my journal and the story of our journey to the distant reaches of the world, through strange lands where dwelt strange beasts, across a frozen ocean where we were sometimes followed by the monsters of the deep, until we came to the land of Gond. At least it pleased us to believe that it was the land of Gond, for by the time we had arrived there all were so hungry and malnourished that I believe that all would have perished if but another moon had passed. There is only so much fish a man can eat. Except perhaps Isesi, who was the smallest of all those that travelled on our ship, but who seemed always to have the largest appetite.

 

On the morning of the storm I awoke early and climbed to the main deck. It was now greater than four score of days at sea since we had passed through the Pillars of Hercules. As I climbed the stairs I felt the danger in the air. The sky was dark with foreboding and there was little mist, though the cold wind found its way through my leathers with an icy finger. The clouds hung low above our masts, and water rolled beneath us black with menace. And I saw that the ship moved differently in the sea and I knew then that this was why I had awoken early. Even the Beasts were restless. On most mornings the Beasts would sleep, huddled together at the rear of their cages, seeking some warmth from the bodies of their brethren. But on this morning they paced the floors of their cages, their heads low, their red eyes hooded. Even the young ones were awake.

 

On the rear deck I saw Naguib and Omar the Centurion talking. Their faces were dark with worry and twice I saw Omar look to the horizon at our rear. Even the Nubians on the tiller arm looked fearful. I spoke with Minkaf and he gave to me a hot broth, made of the meat of the Ran, and seasoned with salt. Carrying the gourd carefully I climbed to the rear deck to join Naguib and Omar. When I joined them at the stern where they stood looking back to the horizon, I saw the cause of their worry. The horizon behind us was lost in the rain and black clouds of the coming storm. As I watched I saw the clouds flicker and flash with lightning and I felt the air shimmering with danger. The waves rolled beneath us, short and sharp, unlike the long rolling swells of the northern waters. The storm was coming upon us, as fast as a desert sand storm, and I could see the white caps of the waves as they disappeared in the rain and cloud.

 

Naguib rang the large bell that was positioned next to the stairs to the rear deck, calling all the men from their beds. I drank my broth quickly and ran to join them. We all knew our tasks and worked quickly to secure the cages and lock down all barrels, cabinets and ropes. At Naguib’s request we pulled tight the sail on our middle mast, reducing it greatly in size. Then we hauled the forward sail tight, also reducing it in size. Naguib had told us that this was best, that he did not require much sail to guide the ship when the wind was strong. Then we crouched along the rail, holding tight to the ropes as the storm blew down upon us.

 

Far off on our port side we could see the dark cliffs of land, a strange flat topped mountain with its top shrouded in mist and cloud. For a moment I believed we might be able to sail to safety beneath those cliffs but when I looked back and saw the speed of the storm I knew it would not be. The storm came at us like the Djinns of the desert, the Gods urging their dark steeds forward with whips of lightning, their roars like thunder cracking across our backs. I saw lightning twisting around the tops of our masts and I heard the two Omars call out in fear. Next to me crouched Minkaf and Isesi but Naguib and Omar the Centurion remained on the rear deck with Mushariff. I saw that they had lashed themselves to the tiller but that all the Nubians had fled and now crouched against the far rail, their eyes rolling white with fear against their dark skins.

 

The ship began to heave and roll more sharply and the wind began to howl. In the final moments before the storm struck I heard Naguib shouting. Then a roaring darkness fell upon us, icy rain and wind tore at our bodies and I felt our ship roll as if struck by a mighty fist, the timbers screaming and shattering, ropes breaking from their wooden pegs and cracking hard across the deck like the whips of the ox herders, the howls of the Nubians joining those of the miserable goats. Even the mighty Beasts screamed. As our ship fought to right itself the wind took the sails and I felt our ship surge through the water. While Naguib screamed at us in the roaring wind we ran to secure those things that had broken loose. Minkaf’s kitchen was in ruin. Two vats had come loose and, being of bronze and thus of some weight, had rolled across the deck, destroying cabinets and snapping ropes and barrels. The ship rolled beneath us as we fought to secure the deck, icy water washing through the gaps in the rails and swirling thick with foam to our waists. I held tight to every rope as I worked for I did not wish to wash overboard in this terrible sea.

 

The day was now dark as night, our only light that of the lighting flashes that came one upon the other. The water that swirled around our legs and waists was so black and cold that it took the heat from our bodies in but a moment and, as I worked with my comrades, I felt the icy water in my boots, my feet frozen, my body shaking with the cold. But we did not know that this was only the beginning, that this icy water and freezing wind was nothing, for what was to come was to test us to the limit of our endurance and courage. I felt the stern rise as the wind rose to a howl. In a last flash of lighting I looked to the rear deck and I saw Naguib, his face to the heavens, his mouth open in a soundless scream. And I saw that behind him came the horsemen of the Gods of the underworld, their steeds as black as the bowels of hell. And the clouds boiled down upon us and the sea raged. And for forty days we knew no rest from fear or terror.

 

  • * *

 

Of the next forty days I will say little. For it was a time of such hardship and misery that I do not wish to recall it. But I know I must tell at least a little of that time, for we saw such things that we never dreamed of, things that were so strange and so terrible that even now, when I recall them, I fall to the floor and pray to Osiris, mother of the Sun. For we did not see the sun for forty days. Nay, even longer. When the storm struck us near the Mountain of the Flat Cloud, a darkness came upon us such that we feared we had crossed to the underworld. A darkness so deep, and so peopled with strange visions, that we could not believe we were in the realm of men. It is for this reason that I must speak of it.

 

The storm carried us east for many days, the seas black and lashed with foam, the water roaring icy across our decks and freezing our feet inside our leather boots. The wind was filled with spray and sometimes beads of ice that rattled on the deck and the sails and gathered in white piles against the cabinets and in the kitchen. It was a miserable time and we suffered terribly. The mighty Beasts lay at the back of their cages, silent and crowded together for warmth, their hides pale and white. Only their eyes remained alive, burning in the darkness of the night and the gloom of the days with the brightness of a ruby. I watched them many times for I knew now that a strong intelligence lived there.

 

But I did not dwell long on the intelligence of the Beasts. My life, and that of my comrades, was a misery of freezing water and vomit, the latrines at the rear of the ship so coated in horror that I could not go there. Each night, between watches, we lay in our hammocks, the comforting gentle rock of the soft seas of the north transformed to wild swings and bumps that emptied the stomachs of even the most seafaring among us. Sometimes it seemed in my misery that I lay there for one hundred years or more, only to find when I arose that but a few moments had passed. Such was the depth of my despair. But my despair was no more and no less than that of my comrades in arms. Or indeed that of the Nubians and the Beasts. For as the storm drove us relentlessly to the east, so did the weather grow even colder. As we staggered to the deck in the dim light of the morning we saw that the hoarfrost each night grew thicker on the ships rails and rigging. And as the seas broke across the decks and rails, each time a little remained that also turned to ice, and the decks became a murderous path on which no man could stand, and the rails such that no man could grasp.

 

By the dawning of the tenth day of the storm we were frozen men, our spirits drowned in the wind and cold, the decks of our ship white with frost, the railings thick with ice that dripped like frozen waterfalls, the ropes as hard and stiff as the bars of bronze that bound the cages of the mighty Beasts. But even I could feel that our ship did not move as easily through the mountainous waves. Where we had but a few days earlier sped easily down the face of one wave and up and over the face of the next, now our ship drove heavily into each wave, its foredeck white and frozen. Each time the bow of our ship rose more slowly than it did the last, and each time our ship rolled with the wind and waves it rolled more slowly, lumbering upright as if it were a pregnant cow. I saw Naguib speaking urgently with Omar the Centurion. But I knew of what they spoke. The ice was killing our ship. If we did not soon free our ship of the ice then it could only be a short time until it could not raise itself once more above the waves, taking my comrades and myself, and the mighty Beasts, to a frozen watery death. One from which our souls would never be free, lost forever in the black depths so far from our families, our bodies food for the monsters of the deep, our bones to lie forever in the mud and sand at the bottom of this terrible sea.

 

  • * *

 

For ten days and nights we battled to save our ship. While Naguib and the Nubians held the long tiller arm and guided our ship with the roaring winds, my comrades and I cut ice from the decks and the railings, and scaled the mast to break free the lumps of ice that clung to the rigging and the mast top. It was work filled with danger, for the winds still howled around us and, though the rain no longer fell, the ship heeled and rolled heavily in the waves that chased us across the dark ocean. I and my Nubian friend Douwwi worked together, using our hatchets to break the ice free from the railings. Isesi and Minkaf worked with four Nubians, pounding at the ice on the foredeck and breaking away the frozen waterfalls that fell to the main deck. The Omars and the remaining Nubians climbed into the masts and rigging, ropes tied firmly to their ankles to pull them to safety should they fall or be swept overboard.

 

But still the ice came. The waves that swept across our decks were too frequent and too cold to overcome. Each one left more ice behind than that which we had broken away. Each time our ship became heavier, and moved ever more slowly through the waves. On the night of the third day the rain came again, frozen daggers in the wind, and by morning on the fourth day the ice again clung thick and heavy to our mast and rigging. All on board threw themselves against the ice, wrapping our hands in clothes to ease the pain, our fingers without strength or will, but still it came. The Beasts crouched silent in their cages, hungry and white with frost. We had but little food for the Beast. The last of the mewling goats cried out below decks, but the barrels of dried meats and fish were empty. Our daily meal was one of porridge and the last of the dates, now salty from the icy seas spilling into the lower decks. As I crouched one morning near the kitchen I could see that some of the Beasts had met their death at the hands of cold and starvation. But there was nothing we could do.

 

Yes, it seemed that we were doomed. But again the Gods chose to spare us. One of the Nubians, a young man of lighter skin than the others, though still with the strange lumpen patterns across his cheeks and forehead, came forward and asked to speak with Naguib and Omar the Centurion. His God Name was Mashane, and he spoke of his father and his uncles and of their orchard of oranges in the south, beyond the town of Semna. He told of how they burned oil in large vats when the orange flowers were budding, saving the tender shoots from the icy cold of the desert nights. And he told how, when sometimes the frost was settling in the trees and upon the grasses, the smoke from the burning vats would keep his father’s trees free from ice.

 

We needed no bidding. Another day and mayhap our mighty ship could not raise its head to meet the waves, that the weight of the ice would take it into the depths. So we ran to Minkaf’s kitchen and took his huge cooking vats. We placed these at the base of each mast and near the foredeck. And we filled them with oil and Minkaf fired each one from his fire shoe. After that we could do nothing but wait. All day the smoke boiled from the vats, curling black and thick around the mast and through the rigging, or whipping in curls across the foredeck. Though the wind still roared and whipped at us we watched as the ice upon the masts and rigging became wet and shining. And late in the afternoon, lumps of ice began to fall to the deck. Throughout the nights and days thereafter we filled the cooking vats with oil and touched them with fire, the dark smoke whipping in the wind, but swirling thick around the mast and through the sails and across the decks and cages. I know not why it was so but the ice fell away, our sails and rigging moving easily in the wind, the decks wet and dark. The hoarfrost fell from the cages, and the hides of the Beasts, for so long coated in ice and frost, became slick and grey under the smoke. On that first day and thereafter, our ship did not roll so heavily with the wind, or plunge so deeply into each wave. We all felt the changes. Again I kissed the amulet at my neck and thanked the Gods.

 

I was schooled at the temple but I was ever the bad student, seeking in all ways to avoid the priests and their teachings. Thus I could not understand why the Gods chose to spare us. Why me? I am a sinner. I have always been a sinner. All the priests said that this was so, that the Gods would claim me early. When told of this I was fearful for many days but I was young, and so their warnings were soon forgotten. But now I looked to my comrades. If not me then perhaps there was another among us that the Gods favoured. Of course I did not care who that could be. All I cared was that our ship was saved. Our fates yet again had been taken by the Gods, to dice through the heavens at their pleasure. We knew not what they planned for us, and we knew not why we were spared. But truth be told, we did not care. It was enough simply that we lived.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the eleventh night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, at the house of Agymah and Eti, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. My brother Pamu grinds ink and prepares papyrus. Paser has again been banished for a dung beetle was found in the ink. Imhotep remains in his bed. He is a baby.)

Part XII – Arks of Ice

(Here is written the twelfth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Imhotep, Son of Shariff, has recovered from his illness and will assist and make tea. Pamu grinds ink and prepares papyrus.)

 

Yet another night of talk. I am tired of talk. But I am told I must continue. My good wife Eti and my daughter Khuyb are insistent. I earned their ire when I said that I wished to visit Nedemeb, that I wished to share a goatskin with him. Both are quick of memory and remind me of my tortured bowels on the last occasion that I shared wine with he and our friends. Even though it is true that my bowels were in uproar when last I visited Nedemeb, still I wish to go. For that is ever the way of man. At least it has ever been my way.

 

They groan and wring their hands at my flatulence. What of it? What does it matter that I ate all the dates? I think it just that I have some small pleasures. I am not permitted to eat the smoked fish that I love so much. Or the dried meats from Nubia. The physician tells me that my joints will swell and redden should I partake of these foods. But just a little would be welcome. And now they turn their dark eyes upon me again and pray to the Gods for my fallen soul. How many times have they done this? And what does it matter anyway? I am an old man. Surely the Gods have done with me by now. But no matter, I will continue as usual, bending to the will of the women of my life. For this also has ever been the way of man.

 

And so it was that many days passed. Days of freezing misery and cold. After forty days we awoke, our bodies shivering and blue. The storm was gone, but still a stiff wind pushed us east, our bow cutting white through the water, the smoke from our vats curling black and sulphurous around the mast and the Beasts’ cages. Around us the sea was lit by a cold sun, its radiance dim and pale, and we beheld a sight that shows itself to few men. And of these, many do not return. For in the weak pale light of that day we saw the strangest of apparitions.

 

All around us the water stretched, so dark as to be almost black, seeming to swallow the weak light of the sun. But on the water, on all sides of our ship, lay huge white cliffs of ice. For a long few moments, as I stared at these strange objects, I feared we had sailed into a maze of frozen islands, and I looked fearfully to the foredeck to see if the Nubians had run to throw the sounding lead. Then I realised that these islands were as our ship, floating upon the surface of the great sea. It was as if we sailed in an enormous fleet, for all around us huge white arks of ice rolled in the dark swells of the ocean. Many of the ice islands were huge, far greater in size than even our mighty ship, but many were much smaller, not greater than the size of a dhow, and they crowded around us, jostling each other in the freezing waters. All on board crowded to the railings to stare. Naguib and Omar the Centurion stood near the tiller, staring up at the white cliff that rose above us as we neared one of the huge ice islands. I stood beside Minkaf and Isesi. Douwwi stood at my other shoulder but the other Nubians were crowded at the far rail, their eyes, as ever, rolling white against their dark skin. As we neared the icy shore we felt a wash of cold flow across our shoulders and, with cries, threw on our leather cloaks and tied our hats tight beneath our chins.

 

Naguib and Omar the Centurion are wise men. They have always had my respect. But for their wisdom and foresight, I believe that our expedition may have failed or met with tragedy. Many times. As they stood on the reardeck, watching as our ship passed by the side of one of the white mountains I saw Naguib motion to Omar and lean over the side of the ship, looking down into the waters. I followed his eyes.

 

Many of the ice islands were huge, larger even than the temples of Luxor, or of Kharnak, and stretched high into the sky above us, greater even than a hundred cubits higher above the top of our tallest mast. But as I looked into the water I saw that even more ice lay below the surface. All around the sea was dark and forbidding, but beneath the island the water was a soft blue washed with green, and I saw, as the seas washed slowly around the base of the white cliffs, strange curls and shapes in the ice, dark holes of underwater caves, and spikes and spears where the ice had melted in strange patterns. I knew in a moment, as did Naguib and Omar the Centurion, that these strange shapes beneath the sea could spell death to our ship. One touch might drive one of the icy spears through the timbers of our great vessel and spill us into the freezing water. And to a certain death.

 

But there was more danger. There were so many ice islands, jostling and rolling together in the swells, that there was little room for our ship to pass. To be caught between two of these islands as they rolled one against the other might see our mighty ship crushed, as is the egg beneath a sandal, or as if we had holed our ship on the spears of ice. Naguib was rubbing his beard, his face lined with worry as he and Omar spoke. I saw Omar point to our port side and as Naguib nodded agreement I saw them pull the heavy arm of the tiller to the right, turning our mighty ship slowly to the north east. I ran with Minkaf to the foredeck where we watched in horror as Naguib and Omar steered our ship to safety. Though the wind still blew strongly, the waves of the rolling ocean were deadened and slowed by the weight of the ice in the water. We felt the shudder in the timbers of our ship, and heard the grinding sound from beneath the water, as our keel dragged across the sunken shoals of ice. To our stern, we saw two of the ice islands crash together with the sound of thunder, closing the path we had taken, showering ice and snow into the freezing waters. Twice we struck the side of small ice islands, one showering us with blue white slivers of ice, the other so violent as to throw us to the deck. But our ship was strong, and Naguib and Omar of sure hand. We sailed safely.

 

Again the fates had cast the dice and our lives were spared. I truly believe had the storm not ceased, and the seas to our north been not clear of ice, that our ship would have perished and we with it, in the midst of that icy sea. As it was, Naguib and Omar sailed us to safety in the space of a long morning, until our ship once more rolled and plunged in the open ocean. The wind still came strongly from the west. And our cooking vats were filled with oil and the black smoke boiled up into our sails. But of course the Gods had not finished with us. I do not think there was a day that passed where the Gods did not sport with our lives.

 

As we drew away from the sea of ice, slapping each other upon the back and eating more of Minkaf’s porridge, Naguib and Omar pointed again, this time to our rear. And there, in the far distance, we saw that the storm had built again, that the horizon was lost in a dark cloud, and we could not separate sea from sky. I saw lighting flicker again in the clouds and I knew that our ordeal was to begin anew. For a short time the strength flowed from my body and I felt a weariness that only the oldest of men can know. To this day I have not known such weariness as I felt that day.

 

The storm came fast upon us so we ran to our tasks, securing the cabinets and the sails, roping the cooking vats tightly to the deck, dousing the fire of each vat and placing a thick lid of wood on each to save the precious oil. The Nubians checked the ropes that secured the cages of the mighty Beasts, while Isesi and the Omars checked all knots and latches. At last we crouched together below the rear deck, Naguib and Omar lashed to the tiller above us, and we awaited the storm. What ordeal would the Gods now place before us? What further pain and suffering could they put upon us? I lashed myself tightly to the wooden pegs on the wall of the rear deck and prayed, my fingers tight upon the tiny horse at my throat. I prayed to Osiris that our ship would be as fleet as a pony, that it would fly before the storm and take us to safety. Around me my comrades also muttered short prayers and gathered their clothing tightly about them. And then the storm came.

 

The storm that lashed our ship for twenty days was less fearsome than the storm that first took us into the ice. The winds were sometimes as fierce, and the waves still broke across our decks and swirled cold and freezing around our legs, but each day we knew we sailed to warmer waters. And even though the winds blew strongly from the west, still Naguib and Omar were able to force our ship to sail across the wind, just a little, but enough. Enough to take us in a north and easterly direction and away from the fields of ice and cold. True, we believed that we were sailing to the north and east, but of this we could not be sure. We could see little around us as the winds drove our ship. The waves and spray blew hard against our faces and the clouds and rain clung close by so that we could see no horizon and no stars. On only one day did we see the sun as it rose and it was by that good fortune that we knew our direction. But the sun was soon gone, the clouds and mist closing again around us, the wind whipping at our sails.

 

It was at this time that our food had become scarce. Only porridge and salted biscuits remained, all filled with dark bloated grubs that crawled and spawned in the bottom of the food barrels. I did not care. My comrades did not care. My body was strong as it had never been before but each bone was clear beneath my skin. I knew that if we did not soon outrun this storm and make landfall, that we might perish for lack of food. As always, fortune smiled upon us.

 

When the sun rose on the twentieth day after we escaped the field of ice, it rose on a light wind and rolling seas, the water a soft green, the air warm on our skins such that we removed the caps from our heads and shed our leather leggings. Isesi kept only his loincloth and sandals but all others still wore their leather boots. Off our port bow we saw at a distance the low green ridges of land and so Naguib turned our ship, sailing us into a large bay surrounded by trees and rocky cliffs. The water was not deep and we could see many fish beneath us as we sailed into that safe harbour, their forms moving swiftly, but clear against the white sand beneath.

 

Naguib ran our ship onto the shore near the mouth of a small river that ran into the harbour. The tide was turning and our ship laid itself gently onto the sand, leaning slowly as the water fell. The sun was high above us, the air warm, and the water flowing from the river clean and clear. The shores were filled with tall trees, some with vines and many with bright flowers, grouped in bolts of colour. Strange brightly coloured birds flew by, their feathers of emerald green and ruby red, their screams loud and strange to our ears. Fishes jumped in the shallows, and at the shaded edges we saw turtles, larger than those of the Nile, their backs shiny and green as they moved through the soft waters. On the far side of the river mouth a small group of animals moved. They looked as do the pigs of our homeland. Perhaps not so large and with greater hair on their bodies, but even from a distance we could see that they were fat with the bounty of the land. I and my comrades were pleased. This was a good landfall. We would feed well here.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth early the twelfth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – for Agymah must go to visit his friend Nedemeb who will send him home drunken and unholy and cause him to beat the dog and vomit in the courtyard – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, at the house of Agymah and Eti, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Pamu and Suad have returned to the fields.)

Part XIII – Safe Harbour

(Here is written the thirteenth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox.)

 

Why is it that I am cursed with these evils Djinns? They take on the forms of women and look in every way as if they are my wife and daughter. But I know they are not. They are demons from the underworld, who have stolen into the land of men and now inhabit the bodies of my family. It is the only answer. Why else would these beings pursue me so?

 

I am ill, but they tell me it is my own doing. My head spins and my stomach boils as if filled with hot coals and they tell me it is my own doing. My bowels are aflame and my legs can barely hold me as I wobble to the latrine at the bottom of our courtyard. Again they tell me it my own doing. But this cannot be. What have I done to deserve this cruelty? Surely, I visited Nedemeb. And surely, we drank to our health and that of our families. Perhaps we also drank to the health of the Pharaoh and our friends but I am sure that is all. And what of it? We are old friends so it is fit that we meet when we can and talk of all the good things we have shared.

 

And whenever I visit Nedemeb he is sure to place only the best food upon the table. So last night we ate well as we always do, our plates groaning with smoked goat meat and stuffed dates, with pickled onions and the head of a cow, the skin flayed but the meat tender and sweet as I picked it from the bone. Indeed, a memorable meal, each course finished with a goatskin filled with wine the colour of rubies. But of course such a thing is not to the liking of the evil Djinns. They clatter about, making noises such that my head aches, and show no sympathy for my condition. They say that I am to continue with my story but my head hurts greatly. I only wish to sleep. But the evil one who pretends it is my wife says that I cannot, that I will sit in the cane chair by the door, that I will speak with the other evil one, the one that pretends it is my daughter. Again I have no choice so I drink deeply of the water from the well in the hope that it will revive me and lift my spirits. And so I continue, while next to me the evil creature sits, with ink and sharpened cane and papyrus. May Ra have mercy upon me.

 

We remained in our safe harbour for many days, all but a score. We fished and hunted, filling our bellies and our storerooms with fresh meat, firewood and fish. We cut small trees and bushes and built racks on which to dry our catch. We collected fruit and berries from the forest and water from the river and filled the barrels on the ship. One of the Nubians captured a turtle and killed it, cooking it in its shell on the sand near the water’s edge. We gathered broken timber from the forest and set a great fire on the sand and dined on the turtle in the light of the fire and a silver moon. We believed that the Gods had at last smiled upon us.

 

But there was one task that we undertook with sadness. All had suffered on our journey, but none more than the mighty Beasts, whose cages had provided little comfort or protection against the terrible cold. On the first day of our landing I joined Naguib and Omar the Centurion and we walked by each of the cages, feeding the Beasts what little we had left in the storeroom before we ventured ashore. When we commenced our journey on that night so long ago in Memphis there was one score and ten Beasts. Each cage held three Beasts, some elder Beasts, some younger. Now only a score remained alive, ten of the poor animals dead of cold and hunger on our terrible journey.

 

It seemed that the Beasts in the cages in the foredeck had suffered greatly, for in the first two cages all the Beasts had perished, their mighty carcasses slumped against the bars, their thick hides beginning to soften in the warmth. Four Beasts were dead in other cages. The remaining Beasts lay close by, every now and then raising their heads to lick or sniff the carcass of their dead comrade. So few I thought, when once there were so many. Was this why the Pharaoh wanted to save and transport these mighty animals?

 

Two days later, having feasted on fish and pig meat, our strength had returned, as had that of the living Beasts who fed well on the pigs we hunted in the river valley. The dead Beasts were beginning to rot, a thick rich odour that smelled much as does the stables behind Naguib’s house in Memphis. As we sat on the sand near the mouth of the river, Naguib and Omar told us of their plan. They told us that all the dead Beasts must be taken from the cages and cast into the sea. Of course, this was not difficult to do if all the Beasts were dead, as they were in the first two of the cages. But what of the other cages, where two fierce animals remained alive alongside the one that had died? How were we to take the dead one without allowing the others to attack us?

 

And we did not doubt for even a moment that the Beasts would attack, should anyone venture too near, even if those that remained were weak and wasted after so many days at sea. All recalled Protos, the Nubian, and though none spared him a thought of pity for his plans to kill and steal, still everyone remembered with horror the manner of his death, when in venturing to close to the cage he was dragged against its bars and torn limb from limb by one of the Beasts. No. The Gods may have chosen to smile upon us but it would not do to test their patience. How were we to move those Beasts that were dead but within the cage with other live Beasts? We thought upon this for a good while, our feet dipped in the cool waters as we sat upon the warm sand. This was truly a beautiful place and it was at this time that Naguib asked of Omar the Centurion if this could be the land of Gond. I felt a shiver in my chest. Could it be? It was true we had been at sea for many days. But could this really be the distant land of Gond? What did it look like? What sort of peoples dwelt here? What sort of animals?

 

But Omar stroked his beard and said this was not the land of Gond. He said that the Pharaoh had instructed us to go forth to the land of Gond, and that we would know it as our land when we came upon it. The Pharaoh said it would be bountiful, with fish and game aplenty, that there would be clear, sweet water that flowed without end. I recall that I looked around me, for this safe harbour had all of these things. But Naguib said again that it was not so, that this was not the land of Gond. We will know he said, we will know, and pointed at the cages of dead Beasts. The land of Gond can wait he said. This we must deal with today.

 

  • * *

 

Naguib called all men to the ship, where we gathered below the foredeck, standing upon a main deck that leaned heavily in the low tide. Behind us, stretching to the rear of the ship, were the cages of the Beasts. In the first two cages all Beasts were dead. Our task was to move these mighty carcasses from the cages to the sandy beach where the Nubians had already constructed a pile of thick wooden logs. We would lay the carcasses one atop the other and pile them with logs and cooking oil. Then we would light the pyre. But before we opened the cages where the dead Beasts lay we took our spears and prodded each carcass. Naguib said it was best that we be sure that the Beasts were dead. He said that if we were to venture into the cage and find a Beast alive then it may be a little unpleasant. I recall that I looked at him with interest when he said this. Unpleasant? I had little doubt it would be far worse but Naguib sometimes was a man of few words.

 

All morning we toiled, dragging the huge carcasses from the cages at the front of the ship. Each dead Beast was heavier that six camels and we needed all our strength to move each one. With the exception of Naguib, who watched from the foredeck, all came to assist. We cut a half score of trees from the forest at the edge of the river, trimming the logs and placing them against the side of the ship to form a sturdy ramp. We attached thick hempen ropes to each of the dead animals and hauled until the first two cages were empty and all six animals lay on the sand, their bodies piled with logs and broken timbers. Minkaf cast oil upon the logs and fired the pyre with his fire shoe.

 

We watched in silence as the fire grew, the logs burning orange in the sunlight, a pale smoke rising into the blue sky. But we did not tarry for Naguib wished to complete the task. There remained four more dead Beasts, one in each of the remaining four cages. And in each cage, two living animals. We had yet to solve this problem and sat for a long while on the sand while we considered what we should do. Again it was Mashane, the young pale skinned Nubian, who came forward. He spoke with Omar the Centurion who clapped his hands together and jumped to his feet. Of course he cried. So simple. And he told us of Mashane’s plan.

 

Each of the cages must be turned toward the other, such that the door of each was close against the door of the other. Then we were to open each door, using our spears to release the bolts. We were fortunate indeed that the doors opened equally on both the inside and outside of the cages. Mashane said that when we had opened the doors, it would be a simple task to force the living Beasts into the other cage and then to again close each door. Only then could we safely take the dead Beast from its cage and transport it to the sandy beach. And, when we had done this, we could return the cage to its original position and force the living Beasts back to the other cage, again leaving only one cage with the living and one with the dead. It was indeed a simple plan.

 

Our final task was completed before nightfall and as the sun sank below the trees and the light dimmed to a soft purple, we sat in the cool sand. The orange flames of the fires burned high, sparks leaping into the night. We had fought these mighty animals and many had died. But we had travelled far, far from our home and, I think, far from the home of the Beast. I touched my amulet and prayed that the Gods take the spirits of the mighty Beasts into the heavens, where they might find their home and roam unfettered for all time.

 

  • * *

 

Minkaf woke us early with a clattering in the kitchen and the smell of freshly cooked meat. We sat on the deck watching the sun creep over the horizon, a thin mist stirring at the mouth of the river, birds with long legs stepping in the shallows, spearing fish with their sharp beaks. It was a truly beautiful harbour, sheltered from the storms and with sweet water and plentiful food. I was sorry that we were to leave this place. Again we breakfasted on pig, garnished with leaves that gave off a sweet sharp smell. Minkaf also ground berries, making a flour that he used to cook small cakes of bread. This bread had a strange taste but when dipped in the juices of the meat it would fit the table of the Pharaoh. Our memories of cold porridge and weevils seemed but a distant dream.

 

But the sun had barely cleared the horizon when Naguib and Omar the Centurion were among us clapping their hands and shouting. Our ship was sturdy and strong and built from the strongest timber, that of the Tamarix. Even so, there was much that required repair. In truth, when we looked up at our ship while we stood on the sandy beach, our mouths opened in amazement. Yes, our ship was indeed large and sturdy but did now look as if broken and abandoned, its sails blackened with ash, some torn and tattered, the railings broken and shattered in the storms and cold of the southern ocean, many of the huge Tamarix timbers that ran the length of the ship cracked or split, the tar falling from the seams, the cabinets at the base of the main mast cracked and leaking, the ropes and rigging a reminder of the vines that hung in the forest behind us. Nothing remained of the tidy vessel that Naguib had taken through the Pillars of Hercules. Yes, truly, it was a ship in need of repair.

 

And so it was for another half score of days that we toiled in the hot sun in the safe harbour. We hauled the ship closer to the shore on the mid-tide. We brought logs to the ship for our repairs and gathered sap from the trees of the forest. This we mixed with sawdust and used it to seal the decks. And we gathered green saplings from the banks of the river and carved these into wooden pegs that we dried in the sun before fitting them to the railings. The trees of the forest gave us a fine red timber. It was of even grain, of bright colour, and perhaps the best timber I have worked with in all my years as a furniture maker. Even the timber taken from long dead trees did not show the damage of insects, so mayhap a man might take it with him to the Afterlife. We hewed the timber to make doors for the broken cabinets and used it to repair the latrines and the steps from the lower decks. I took many logs and stored these below the main deck in the now empty goats’ quarters. It was easy to hew and shape and would make fine carvings. The Gods willing, I would take this timber with me to my homeland, there to make fine furniture.

 

And when all repairs had been completed we rubbed all of the timbers with the fat of the pigs we had captured and eaten, turning the timber a rich red where new, and a darker colour, almost black, where the Tamarix was old and weathered. But for our sails and ropes we could do little. These were made from the finest hemp, grown of the reeds of the Nile. There was nothing stronger, but even so the sails were torn and the ropes frayed and split, some even damaged by our own hatchets as we toiled to cut away the ice. We repaired what we could. In the failing sunlight of our ninth day we completed our tasks. The ship lay in shallow water, its bottom grounded on soft white sand, the orange glow of the sunset painting it a ship of many colours, the timbers a patchwork of red and black, the sails a feast of golden cloth, the cages black and forbidding. Our task was complete. It was time to go.

 

  • * *

 

That night, as we lay on the deck of the ship, the air warm about us, our bellies filled with fresh turtle meat and fruit from the forest, we talked of home. Naguib talked of his betrothed, who in truth was an ugly woman, though I had spoken with her and I knew her to be of good temper and strong character. Of course I did not say so to Naguib. Isesi sat nearby and chattered of his goats. The Omars talked of food, of oatmeal cakes and sweetbreads, of dates stuffed with almonds and bathed in honey. Minkaf talked of his mother and his father and of his brothers and sisters. They were many and he wished to see them again. Mushariff chewed the betel leaf and was silent. Never had he spoken of his family.

 

I did not speak much that evening. I thought deeply of my parents and of my brothers. I missed them greatly but I felt in my heart that I would see them again. I knew I must, for I still had a debt of five shekels that I must repay to Kanefer. I also wondered what land this was that we had chanced upon. Could it be the land of Gond? It was far from our home, just as the Pharaoh had said. Was it time to release the mighty Beasts? I put this question to Naguib. But Naguib shook his head and turned to Omar the Centurion who also shook his head. The Pharaoh had said that we would know when we have reached the land of Gond, that we will see it as our own country. He cast his hands about, asking us to look around us. Did we see the golden sands of our home? Did we see the date palms, the goats, the yellowed mud brick of the houses? Did we see the reeds that cloaked the banks of the Nile, the fields of green corn, the camels?

 

Of course we did not see these things. This strange land was heavy with forest, the trees taller than any I had seen, some more than one hundred cubits in height, greater by far than the masts of our ship. But nowhere could I see a palm tree. And the sands of its beaches were broad and white but nowhere did we see the rich yellow dunes of our homeland. And the reeds at the edge of the river were but puny when compared to the tall fronds that grew along the banks of the Nile. And the only animal we had seen was the runtish short-legged pig, which seemed to be in great abundance. It was humourous to behold but of churlish nature. No. Nowhere did we see things that reminded us of our home

 

Naguib said that we must continue our journey, that we would leave on the following day on the first tide. Our storerooms were filled with game and fruits and berries. Our water barrels were overflowing with the fresh sweet water from the river. He said that we would continue to sail with the coast to our port side. Naguib did not know how far we had yet to travel to reach the land of Gond, but he was a man of confidence and strength of spirit. When Naguib spoke my heart rested. But little did we know the strange things we would see and hear when we awoke in this quiet paradise. Yet again the Gods would sport with us, casting without care the dice of our lives. And yet again they would speed us on our way with our eyes wide and staring, our thoughts tumbling in confusion. For this was indeed a strange, strange land.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the thirteenth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos –- scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, at the house of Khuyb, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Imhotep has made tea but it smells of camel dung and Nile mud. He is in grave need of a wife.)

Part XIV – Of Golden Isles

(Here is written the fourteenth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Pamu has returned as the river has swollen and spills across the fields. He grinds ink and prepares papyrus.)

 

My daughter is indeed her mother’s child, sharp of wit and dark of eye, with a mind that seeks always to better itself. I have had her beside me when we barter our furniture and always she exceeds my expectations. I believe she is a good business woman and, indeed, the better of the many men that come through our door, including Imhotep who, truth be known, I now think of as having the mind of a sheep. For this I receive a beady stare. I wonder at her interest in Imhotep, for his mind, though filled with business cunning, does not match that of Khuyb. But that is a decision that only she can make. Never have I had an understanding of the ways of the heart and I have accepted that this will ever be. I believe this is another truth of nature. My daughter nods and I see that she agrees with me.

 

I watch her now as she writes my story. In only two moons has she mastered the script. True, she had much tuition from her mother and I as she grew, but she did not attend temple as did her brothers. But how much brighter does her flame burn than theirs? As I look upon her I see her mother’s beauty. The gleaming hair, black as pitch, shining like the oil of the lamp; her eyes, slanted and dark, flashing with interest or anger; her nose, large and gently hooked like that of her grandfather, but so much more comely upon her face. Ah, she fixes me again with the beady eye. This means I must cease my ramblings and continue my story. And I will continue my story, though I am a little tired and the story, in truth, is a little longer in the telling than I had thought. But no matter. Onward.

 

Our final day in the safe harbour dawned heavy with mist. The mist lay close around us so that we could not see even fifty cubits. Even the trees of the forest, so close by our sides the day before, now appeared to us as wraiths that moved secretly through the curling strands of white. And the air was heavy and swallowed all sound, such that we could not hear the splashing of the birds in the shallows, or the splash of a jumping fish. This day our breakfast was a thick brew of meat and meal, made by Minkaf from the legs of the runtish pigs, and with porridge and seed pods, and some fragrant leaves that we had bartered with the tall ones. The taste was strange, as always, but again Minkaf plied us with his berry cakes and we filled our bellies with relish, and washed it down with water from the barrels. We also ate of a strange fruit that Isesi brought from the forest, a fruit with a round green husk that was hard like leather but, when split with a hatchet or knife, the fruit offered up large portions of the sweet yellow meat. We feasted until our bellies were round and tight.

 

After we had completed our breakfast we took food to the Beasts. Our stores were filled with joints from the runtish pig and we took two and three pieces of meat to each Beast. Those that were awake ate the meat with relish. But our ship was ready to sail and there was little to do until the tide had turned and so we sat upon the deck, the Nubians dicing near the rear deck, my comrades and I sitting under the foredeck sail. Naguib and Omar the Centurion stood near the tiller, talking of home. It was at this most peaceful time that we were delivered of another vision of this strange land. We were all filled with food and resting, the air warm and the wind light, the sky blue as lapis lazuli and scattered with white clouds, the waters around us swirling in soft greens and brilliant blues. As the ship began to turn in the tide Naguib asked that we push the empty cages from the ship. He said that it would lighten the ship greatly and that the deck would not be so cramped or so crowded. The sun was high as we pushed the last of the empty cages from our ship and into the sea, where they lay upon the sand, only partly covered by the water and perhaps two hundred cubits from the sandy beach. As the heavy cages fell into the soft waters, our ship rose easily on the flooding tide. We ran to the sails as Naguib and the Nubians pulled hard on the tiller arm, turning our ship across the wind and pointing the bow towards the green headlands and the open sea. As I pulled on the sails I kissed the amulet at my neck and prayed for a safe journey. Then, in a moment, came the screams of the Nubians and I knew, yet again, that our fate was in the wind.

 

  • * *

 

At the screams of the Nubians we ran to the starboard side of the ship, where the sandy beach and the forest stood no more than two hundred cubits distant. The beach was wide and glowed white in the sun and we saw in a moment why the Nubians screamed. For there on the beach we saw a strange being. When first I saw it I thought it a man. But then I saw how it moved. It did not walk as a man walks. It made leaps through the air. And its tail was long and thick. It was strange animal, if indeed it was an animal. And then the Nubians screamed afresh, for more of the strange beings came onto the beach, greater than one score, and made jumps to take them to the edge of the water where they stood and looked out towards our ship.

 

For a many moments we were silent as we watched these strange beings, with their small pointed heads and thin arms, but with strangely heavy hindquarters and long tails. What sort of being was this? Was it a man or an animal? It looked like a man but not like a man. It stood as tall, nay taller, than many men, but its body was covered in red hair and its hands seemed small and frail. I felt the fear move in my chest. Was it another test, another trial that we must face?

 

Then there was a shout from Omar the Centurion. As we watched the beings on the beach we had sailed our ship close to the sand bar on the other side of the river. We ran to the sails with great haste, and the Nubians ran to pull on the tiller arm with Naguib and Omar. We heard the grinding of our keel in the sand and felt our ship slow but we triumphed and turned the ship to sail again past the beach and the red haired animals. In my mind I had at this time decided that the strange beings must be animals, for no man had I seen who walked with hair on all parts of his body. And none with a tail, or such feeble arms. No. These were indeed animals.

 

But the Gods were not finished with us. There was another scream from the Nubians and again we rushed to the railings. There were more strange beings on the beach, but this time I knew them to be men. These men were small and fine of limb, but no less men, their bodies written in stripes of ash, their beards long and ragged, their skin dark, though not so dark as is the Nubian, their hair wild and filled with grasses. They were as if made from the earth itself, and from the straw gathered in the field, and all carried a bundle of long sticks at their hand. When the animals saw the straw men they began to jump, jumps of many cubits that quickly took them far along the beach. The straw men stopped and cast the long sticks a great distance at the animals. I realised then that these men carried spears. Surely, spears of great difference to those we carried, but spears no less.

 

It was over in but a moment and two of the red haired animals lay upon the sand, a long thin spear of wood passed through each. One of the animals still moved and we watched as the men ran to it, one standing near its head and striking it again and again with a thick piece of wood. Then we heard a faint shout and all the straw men turned towards us. One ran to the edge of the water and cast a piece of wood across the waves. Strangely the wood seemed to fly through the air for a great time before falling into the water not far from our ship. And we saw that the straw men were of great strength for he had cast the wood more than two hundred cubits.

 

But there was another shout from Omar. Again we must turn the ship before we strike another sand bar. And so we ran to the sails and the Nubians pulled again on the tiller arm and we turned for the headland and the open sea. As the wind filled our sails and the ship leaned into the waves I ran to the rear deck and stood with Naguib and Omar and watched the strange straw men on the white sand. And wondered. Yet again we had seen strange beings and strange animals. But yet again we had journeyed safely, our ship firm and strong, our stores filled, our bodies clean and fed. What fate did the Gods plan for us? And where was our journey’s end? The Pharaoh had sent us forth to deliver the Beasts to the land of Gond. Was this the land of Gond I asked myself again. Could it be so strange? Naguib was certain it was not, that we would know our journey’s end when first we saw it. But I was not so certain. We had journeyed for longer than ten moons, and seen things that few men ever see. I knew in my heart that the Gods had not yet finished with us and that it may be many more moons before our journey was ended.

 

  • * *

 

The winds were kind and the seas mild and for five days we sailed with the coast at our port bow. The rolling hills were green and thick with trees, the rocky headlands split by white sandy beaches and, sometimes, the wide mouth of a river. Nowhere did we see anything that reminded us of our home. And nowhere did we see any more of the strange red haired animals or the straw men who pursued them. The seas we sailed through were rich with fish. Minkaf cast for fish on the second day after leaving the safe harbour and in a single morning had pulled a score of fish from the water. The fish were fine eating, their flesh white and firm, with few bones. From that day all on board cast lines each morning, pulling fish of all colours and sizes from the water. So many fish did we catch that on the fourth day our barrels were full. Minkaf and Mushariff toiled for a full day, splitting and cleaning the fish and hanging the flesh upon racks to dry in the sun.

 

But by the fifth day we had eaten our fill of fish. When Minkaf served salted fish and berry cakes on the evening of our fifth day at sea even the Nubians were unhappy. And even the mighty Beasts turned their head from any offering we put before them. Naguib spoke with Minkaf and asked that he serve some runtish pig, at which Minkaf grew angry and went to the other end of the ship and refused to speak for a full day. Of course we went with haste to the kitchen and ate well of pig and berry cakes. Minkaf grew even more angry when he perceived this. But that very night, as we lay in our slings, with full bellies and tired limbs, another storm came upon us. As we stumbled from our slings and climbed to the main deck the wind howled and waves broke across our decks. Naguib and the Nubians pulled on the tiller arm and steered us away from the shore, for we did not wish to run our ship into the rocky headlands, to be battered and crushed to splinters in the roaring winds and waves.

 

For four days and nights we rode before the storm, the clouds low and dark upon the ocean, the waves rolling black and high beneath our ship. Each morning I fell from my sling, weak with sickness, my head aching such that it might burst, my bowels and stomach on fire. Truly I wished that I would die. But of course I did not. And though my comrades prayed equally for a merciful end to their suffering, none were granted their wish. No. The Gods had other plans. For four days the Gods beat their drums and drove the storm onward and for four days we suffered. But the Gods take pity upon even the greatest sinners and so it was that on the fourth night the storm weakened and died and the clouds fled and we sailed under a bright moon on a black rolling sea.

 

  • * *

 

I awoke before dawn, my limbs cold but my stomach and bowels quietened. All others were asleep around me as I dropped from my sling and climbed the steps to the main deck, my sandals slapping on the wet timbers, my shoulders and arms shivering in the early morning air. It was the moment before the dawn, when the light has not yet risen, such that shadows seem to move and have a life of their own. This day is clear in my mind, even after so long. Naguib and Omar the Centurion stood on the rear deck, a Nubian on the foredeck watched for shoals or other dangers. A grey mist curled through the sails and the rigging and wafted between the cages of the Beasts. The mist was such that I could see perhaps two hundred cubits from the ship but no further. The wind had fallen away to a zephyr and the sea ran black and silent beneath our keel. The only sounds were the creaks and groans of the timbers of the ship or the squeal of a rope as the sails pulled in the light breeze. In the strange early light and with the grey mist curling around us it was as if we traveled alone in the world. It was a strange feeling.

 

Minkaf came to the main deck and went to his kitchen. I watched as he fired the coals under two vats. More of the runtish pig I thought. How I hungered for the wheat cakes that my mother and my sisters would make. Could it really be only four score of days and nights that we had left our homeland? Isesi and the Omars came forward and joined Minkaf and I as we ate. Minkaf had also brewed tea, made from the bark of tree he had selected when in safe harbour. It tasted faintly of grasses but was pleasant enough. Minkaf was pleased when I said this to him. He carried gourds to Naguib and Omar the Centurion who supped heartily. It was then that Gase, one of the Nubians, called from the foredeck.

 

I looked over the side of our ship and saw that the water had turned from black to a soft blue, a sign that we were approaching shallow water though with a sandy bottom. The mist was beginning to rise, sparkles of sunlight coming from the water and flickering across our sails. Naguib turned the ship to starboard, again to take us away from the shore and any shoals or reefs that might abound. It was then that Isesi shouted and leapt to the railing. He was followed by Mushariff, and the Omars and Minkaff. Even the Nubians crowded close. For in an instant the mist was swept away, as if the curtains of the Gods, and a vista was shown to us that brought us to tears.

 

Stretched before us was a string of golden islands, with tall, golden dunes sparkling and yellow in the morning sun, their tops feathered in the breeze, their steep slopes unblemished and clear. It was as if I stood at the edge of the city of Memphis and looked to the south, to the desert, where the mighty dunes marched in never-ending lines to the horizon. As far as we could see the islands stretched, the high golden dunes broken by narrow, green channels of water. These dunes also marched to the horizon and on one of the islands, not more than three hundred cubits distant, I spied a single tree. A palm.

 

I knew then that we had reached our destination. We had reached the Pharaoh’s distant land, that which we would know as our own home. After ten score of days and nights of misery and fear our ship sailed close by the dunes of gold. Many of our comrades had died. Many of the Beasts had also perished in the terrible cold of the southern ocean. We had seen things that men should not see, seen strange beings and animals, and eaten of new and strange foods and drink. It was a wondrous journey, but one filled also with much sadness. What further dangers or perils could now await us? Surely the Gods would dice no more with our lives. Surely our sacrifices had been great. Surely they could want no more. But did I really believe this for even a moment? No. I did not. For I knew deep in my belly that this was still only the beginning, that before many more days had passed the dice would again roll across the stars, throwing our fates to the heavens and our lives to the winds. This it seems has ever been my lot. For there before us, shining and gold under a dark sun, lay Our Pharaoh’s land. Our destination. Our destiny. The land of Gond.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the fourteenth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Agymah has again gone to sup wine with his friend Nedemeb where, so has Nedemeb’s wife Habibah said to me, they will behave in a foul and odious manner. And Imhotep, who is in grave need of a wife, and whom I plan to wed, is asleep in the kitchen and again has failed in his duties. This, I fear, will ever be the way of men.)

Part XV – Men of Earth and Straw

(Here is written the fifteenth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Imhotep has been gone this last day. My mother, Eti, wife of Agymah, told him that he must make gift of a dowry and now he cannot be found. I am not surprised. This, also, is ever the way of men.)

 

As the sun burned away the mist, the golden islands rose through the fog, like strange hump backed animals, their shoulders cloaked in green and grey, their shores yellow and shining in the morning light. They stretched into the distance, as far as our eyes could see, the golden dunes rolling to the horizon, broken here and there by the pale blues and greens of the water, and streaked with green of forest and bushes. Naguib nosed our ship close by the shore of the nearest island, no more than two hundred cubits from the sandy beach. It was mid-tide and we soon felt the grind and lurch of the ship as it bellied upon the soft sand. As our ship came to a halt the Nubians cast our anchor from the bow, a mighty cross of rock and wood, bound with thick ropes of hemp. All on board lined the railings, our eyes drawn to the golden dunes that reached high above us. The dunes were tall, so tall that they stretched far above the height of our tallest mast, taller even that the tallest dunes of Egypt. Never had we seen such mountains of sand. I heard Isesi whisper to one of the Omars that the island must be ten times the height of our mast. And our mast was as high as one hundred cubits. We all stared in wonder.

 

The islands were huge, and of great beauty. The dunes were so tall that in some places we could see deep valleys where water ran, and trees and bushes in abundance. On our starboard side lay a small cove, its sandy shore pierced by a narrow watercourse, bordered by green grasses and surrounded by dark trees for a short distance, thence the steep wall of sand stretching to the sky. The water in the cove was the blue of the sky, the movements of fish clear against the soft white sand beneath the water. Yes. It was a truly beautiful place. But Naguib, ever the master of the ship, would allow no rest. As he and Omar the Centurion shouted orders we ran to the sails, folding and binding these so that they did not catch the wind. We brought empty water barrels to the deck and placed these in two of the dhows, along with baskets, that we might store fruit should we find any. And our spears tipped with bronze, should we meet any of the strange red haired hopping animals or the dark skinned men. And our goatskins, from which we might drink to slake our thirst, for the air was indeed warm and the sun hot upon our shoulders. How far had we travelled I wondered since our days in the cold southern ocean? How far indeed? Our days in the cold south seemed so far behind us that they were as if but a dream.

 

Two days said Naguib. Only two days did we have to replenish our stores with water and any food we might find. Two days should our ship need any further repairs. Two days until we release the last of the Beasts. And then we set sail for our home. My comrades and I chattered with excitement as we lowered our dhows to the water. Even the Nubians were clucking and laughing. Our journey was done. Soon, we would sail for Egypt.

 

  • * *

 

We travelled to the island in two dhows. Naguib’s dhow, with the Omars and two Nubians, travelled on the seaward side of the island. Omar the Centurion guided the other dhow to the leeward side, crewed by Isesi, two Nubians, Minkaf and myself. On the ship remained Mushariff and all other Nubians. They were to secure our ship until we returned. Before we parted Naguib ordered that we return before the sun fell behind the island. We do not know this land he said. And we do not know its peoples or its animals. For these reasons he said, we must take care. If we had but known the truth of these words.

 

Omar steered our dhow to the sandy shore of the cove and we carried our barrels and baskets onto the sand. Omar and Minkaf carried the spears, the Nubians and Isesi the barrels. I carried the baskets. After securing our dhow to the limb of a dead tree close by the water’s edge, we followed the small watercourse across the sand and into the trees. After a short distance the watercourse disappeared into a deep dark gully that split the side of the mighty sand dune that stretched above us. We filled the barrels from the spring where it bubbled from the sand and set the barrels in the shade of a tree. There they would be safe until we returned.

 

The sun was still low in the sky when we began to climb the mighty dune. But when we came to the top of the dune, our muscles screaming, our bodies wet with heat, the sun was high above our heads. I believe it was as when we marched to battle, when the sand slipped beneath our feet, when we took one pace back for each two paces forward. Yes, it was as if it were our homeland. The pains of my legs told me this was so. But such thoughts were soon driven from my mind. As we looked out from our place of rest at the top of the mighty dune we saw a vista of such beauty that our voices were hushed. Truly this was a mighty dune, stretching far into the sky above the blue waters of the ocean, and testing our strength as never before. But it was one of many. For on all sides stretched islands, each filled with great dunes, many as great, nay some even greater, than the one on which we stood. They rolled into the far distance across the blue waters until they were lost in the distant mist of the horizon, their high rounded backs streaked with gold and green, set in soft green and blue waters. The colours brought to my mind the colours of the scarab, a swirl of blue and gold and purple and green such that is a feast for the eye.

 

Our eyes roamed as we drank from the goatskins. We stood at the top of a mighty dune which itself stood at the far end of a sand island. The island stretched far and was shaped as is the crescent moon, the seaward side of the island a long curved stretch of white sand. At the base of the dune on the leeward side we could see long green valley that stretched for more than a day’s walk. An oasis of dark water lay against the base of the dunes in the distance. Far below us on the seaward side lay our mighty ship. It appeared as a plaything, so small that a child might throw it about at his bath. And further to the seaward side, a tiny white dot moved on the water, Naguib’s dhow, as it made its way along the soft white curve of the crescent island. No other islands lay to seaward. It was that we had landed upon the first of many islands, a string of pearls that stretched across the ocean as when the Gods had thrown the stars across the sky. And as beautiful.

 

But again Omar drove us on. To the oasis he shouted, pointing far down the green valley. And so, after asking us to climb so far to the top of this enormous dune, did he ask us to climb down from it, knowing well that we must return and of course again climb the dune, yet again to climb down. Sometimes I wonder at the minds of men. I recall I looked to all sides to see if there might be an easier path. But the dunes were curled one upon the other and nowhere could I see another path to ease our burden. I groaned and shook my head and joined my comrades. I was young and strong. My legs would carry me for many days yet, no matter what Omar asked of me.

 

  • * *

 

We descended to the base of the dune much as we climbed to its summit, our sandals slipping in the fine sand, our hands stung by the sharp leaves and branches of the stunted bushes, our legs without strength, until we stumbled out upon the green grass of the valley floor. However, unlike our journey to the top of the dune, our journey down was mercifully short, though Minkaf fell into a watercourse and climbed from the deep gully cursing and pricked by thorns. When we had spied the oasis from the top of the tall dune, it seemed but a short march. But it was not so. The sun still rose high above us but as we drew near the oasis it touched the edge of the highest dune and the valley began to fill with shadow. Omar motioned us forward. Make haste he cried. We have a long journey back and I have no wish to sleep on land tonight.

 

As the Nubians filled our goatskins all others cast about in the thick forest surrounding the oasis. There were berries aplenty, small trees of nuts, which Minkaf grasped then shook hard, causing many nuts to fall to the ground, short dark bushes, green of leaf but heavy with a sweet dark fruit. We soon filled our baskets and carried these back to the oasis. The Nubians had filled the goatskins and Omar was eager to depart. The sun had fallen further behind the dunes and the valley floor was now dark and gloomy. The tops of the dunes glowed a bright gold in the evening sun. I recall my thoughts as I lashed a basket to my shoulders and looked up at the tall dunes above us. Again I thought. Again I must climb that treacherous slope? Then I thought of home. One last time I said to myself. And then we turn for home.

 

The Nubians were noisy as we walked the valley floor, speaking loudly with Omar. He said that they complained of the water in the oasis, that it was sour and smelled bad, as if a herd of camels had bathed in it. And though blue from a distance, when a man stood close he could see that it was dark, almost black, the colour of old tea. Why was this so they asked. What lay within it? What might be our fate if we were to drink it? Minkaf listened as Omar spoke with them, quietening them, taking a goatskin and drinking deeply to show there was no danger. Then he turned to tell us of their fears, how the dark water swirled and bubbled as they filled the goatskins, that while we searched in the bushes they had seen strange eddies and shadows in the water, as if something moved in the darkness, its shape almost clear then fading quickly before their eyes could see it and know what it was. They were very fearful. But Omar chuckled, and lifted his shoulders. It is water he said. Sour and stale perhaps but we can empty our goatskins at the spring near the beach. Do not drink unless you wish to.

 

As we began our climb up the side of the dune he said he had lived for two years in the land of the Nubians, and he told how they worshipped the Gods of darkness and blood. He spoke of dark rites and strange customs that saw the blood of animals spilled, and sometimes, that of children. Spilled to satisfy the everlasting hunger of the Gods of the night, of fearful masks and loud drumming that shook the soul, of stick like figures of wax and wood, painted with charcoal and ochre, used by the Nubian priests to curse and terrify their fellow men. When he saw our faces, white with fear, he laughed. Only the Nubians themselves were so slow of mind, he said, as to believe the tales that their priests would tell. No Egyptian would believe such things. I recall I cast a quick look towards my comrades, as we hauled our baskets to the summit. Would they believe the words of the priests, even though they be Nubians? I knew that I would. I also knew that I would not drink of the black water.

 

When at last we reached the summit, our bodies wracked with pain, the sun was a pinprick of bright light on the distant horizon, The sky to the west was painted with orange and purple, the islands like black pools upon a sheet of gold. To the east all was darkness but there, far below us, a tiny spark of light from our ship. Omar stayed us for a short time upon the summit, and allowed all to drink. Even I was so thirsty that I drank deeply of the sour water. It tasted like the nectar of the Gods. I saw that the Nubians also drank deeply. We men are but shallow creatures I have decided, damned always to take the easiest road. But I was tired and did not care.

 

Our journey from the summit of the dune to the water’s edge was slow, our movements hampered by our heavy baskets and the uncertain purchase of our sandals on the steep slope of the dune. When finally we fell onto the beach in the darkness our bodies were again wet with heat, our shoulders aching with the pull of the baskets, our muscles tired and spent. We fell into the dhow and only Omar had the strength to haul the sail and turn us toward the light of the ship.

 

When we climbed aboard our ship Minkaf turned to his kitchen but I had no stomach for food. Let the others eat. My body cried out for rest. I crawled to my sling on the lower deck, the smells of the fresh water and the berries and the fruits sweet to my nose. Above me, through the hatch to the main deck, I saw bright stars, more than I had ever seen, filling the heavens with a bright milky light. I recall that I stared in wonder but my eyes were tired and sore. I could not stay awake, and that night I slept a sleep so deep that even the grumbles and growls of the Beasts did not wake me. I slept the sleep of the dead.

 

  • * *

 

On the next morning I awoke late, my muscles stiff and sore, and fell from my bed with curses and groans. As I made my way to the main deck I heard Minkaf and Isesi laughing. What is it that these jackals find so funny at such a time of the day? Have they no manners? But it was indeed much later than I had imagined, for the sun was high above the ship, burning brightly off the water and the dunes and causing me to cover my eyes as I looked about. A warm breeze curled about our shoulders and through the rigging of our ship. Our ship creaked and rocked gently as the blue waters rolled smoothly beneath us. Around us the golden dunes stretched on all sides. The sky was of brightest blue, that of lapis lazuli, nay even brighter than lapis lazuli, touched here and there with the soft shapes of white clouds. On the foredeck I could see Minkaf and Isesi standing next to the Omars and Naguib. They all looked to the nearest sand island and when I followed their gaze I too saw the smoke. And, on the breeze, the smell of cooking meat.

 

The smoke rose from the edge of the trees in the small cove that we had visited just one day past. As I peered across the blue water to the island I could see that a small fire burned. And as I watched I saw that straw men moved around it. I wondered if it could be those that we saw when last we landed, before we sailed for days before the storm. Could it be those same dark beings? Or were there many of these people scattered across this land? My comrades crowded to the railing with me to wonder at these things.

 

What were these men doing I asked myself. Was the fire a cooking fire? What did they cook? Was it an animal? Perhaps the strange red haired animal that jumped. There were many of the straw men near the small fire, perhaps greater than a score, but they did not move around. Many crouched near the fire, others standing close by, the smoke curling blue and white in the soft air. For a long time we watched, the sun crossing the sky above our heads, the shadows forming on the water. Then we heard a faint cry, as if of a bird, and we saw that the straw men were all standing. And from the edge of the trees we saw more dark beings emerge. I heard Isesi gasp and I saw his surprise, for these new beings were of finer form than the straw men, more rounded of hip and shoulder, and not so tall. Though distant I was sure they carried a strangely flattened basket upon their heads, a basket that they steadied with one hand as they walked across the sand to the fire, their bodies swaying like the reeds of the Nile. I knew in that moment that they were the women of this tribe of straw men. And, I am still ashamed to this day to say this, I felt the excitement rise within me. I did not need to look to my comrade’s faces to know that they felt as I did.

 

There was a cry from the railing. One of the Omars was pointing toward the island. The straw men had a small boat, not a score of cubits in length, and they had set it upon the water. It was thin, no more than two, perhaps three cubits wide, and of dark timber. I wondered if it was of the same timber I had taken at our last landing, and which now lay in our storerooms on the second deck. As we watched the straw men began to push their small boat towards our ship. I saw that they used a piece of wood, not so long as a spear, but flat and wide as with the shelves of our kitchen cabinets, driving it deep into the water beside their boat and using it to thrust their boat forward. In but a few moments the small boat was at the side of our mighty ship, and we crowded to the railing to peer at the straw men. Naguib and the Omars had taken spears and a bow from the cabinets beside the mast but it was soon clear that these straw men meant no harm to us. Three straw men sat in the small boat as it rocked in the soft blue waters. They came no closer than two score cubits, their eyes white in their dark faces, their hair wild and woven with reeds and grasses, their skins the colour of the mud of the Nile. Beside me one of the Nubians whispered to his comrade and pointed. The skins of the straw men were patterned with lumps and scars, and rubbed with ash, just as were the skins of the Nubians. What was this strange likeness? Why was it so? I could feel the unease of my Nubian comrades.

 

Then one of the straw men held out his arms, his hands holding two large fish. He shook the fish and pointed to the beach. Then he touched the fish to his mouth and pointed again to the beach. I heard Isesi ask Omar the Centurion what was it the straw men wanted from us. But it was Naguib who answered. Naguib leaned his spear against the railing and rubbed his beard. They wish us to come to the island he said. They wish us to eat with them. They are here in peace. When Naguib spoke we all looked again at the three strange men in their small craft. Then we looked to the island where the blue smoke still curled through the trees. And where our eyes were drawn, as if by magic, to the finer forms that now moved near the fire, their shoulders soft and full, their hips round and womanly. It was then that I cast my eye back at Isesi and I saw his eyes filled with an evil light. Truly I felt a premonition in that moment but it was my failing that I did not act upon it. In truth, perhaps I could not, for the premonition was in only my mind and not yet in the realm of men. So what could I do? But trust me when I say that if I had done, at that moment, even the smallest thing, then we might never have seen the dangers of the coming night.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the fifteenth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Agymah has gone again to visit his friend Nedemeb and has been joined by Imhotep, who has returned from the souq.)

Part XVI – Douwwi and Pasine

(Here is written the sixteenth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Imhotep has placed a heavy box at my feet, made from the wood of the palm and wrapped in a shawl of red and green. He tells me the gift cannot be revealed until I have completed my father’s tale.)

 

Ah, I see that my daughter is unhappy this day, that her humour has fled and she treats me badly. But why does she treat me badly? It is not I who has spoken with the clumsy Imhotep. That duty was taken by my good wife, a duty that she took to herself alone. Truly I know that she wishes well for her daughter but her daughter is also her father’s child. A child that has long been strong-minded and not one to shirk or cringe from adversity. I think it is clear that our daughter does not need that we speak on her behalf.

 

But I think that my daughter and my wife are upset because, though I drank deeply with Nedemeb last evening, I do not suffer. They do not think it just. That I return to our home so late in the night, singing and laughing loudly, yet awake next morning clear of head and bright of eye. No, far happier would they be should I awake with my bowels on fire and my head pounding like the anvils of the metal shop. And now I see the flash of eye and shake of head that means I have gone too far. So be it. I am a father and a husband and as such I will speak my mind. But of course it does not really matter that I speak my mind for they will pay it no heed. This I should have learned long ago. But I was foolish and did not and so I will cease my chatter and continue my story.

 

We joined the tribe of dark people early on that fateful evening. But not before Naguib had ordered the Beasts fed, with fish from the barrels we hauled from the second deck. And not before Naguib stood before us and warned us of the dangers that might arise. Watch how these men eat he said to us. Eat as they do. Eat only after they have eaten. And drink only after they drink. Watch carefully that you do not offend their custom. Do not bare your teeth in laughter until you see that they bare their teeth in laughter. Do not touch their shoulder in a comradely way for in their culture this may seem as a grave offense, one even that may see blood on the sand. And he warned us, as he looked into the eyes of each man, that we should not have our eyes linger on the women of the tribe, even as they kneel and serve. And he warned also, that before all else, we should never touch a woman. Never. For many times had he seen this, and always would there be the spill of blood. So, pay heed to the customs of your hosts. Treat all with respect and honour and we will return safely to our ship, our minds at rest, our bellies filled with food.

 

At this Naguib led us to the storeroom on the second deck, where he broke open the cabinets and the barrels. We must take gifts he said, for it is with generous heart and friendship that the straw men meet with us. We must also be of generous heart and friendship, and share with these men the bounty of Egypt. Many bolts of soft cloth we loaded to the dhow, and many beads, stored within a vat taken from Minkaf’s kitchen. We took a half score of jars filled with sweet smelling ointments, and two knives, their blade bright, the Pharaoh’s crest shining. These gifts would bring pleasure to the straw men, for their loincloths were sewn from animal skins, and their spears only of hardened wood. Yes. These gifts would truly be welcome.

 

Both dhows were low in the water as we journeyed to the sand. Only Mushariff, who did not wish to eat, remained upon our ship. One Nubian also remained. He was a dark and strong young man, named Gase, with strong white teeth that he had filed to sharp points. He was comely of face but when he showed his teeth many men would step away. Isesi whispered that he was a demon, that only a demon would bear teeth so sharp. But I thought it only the want of his people. As we nosed the dhows onto the soft sand the headman of the tribe of straw men came forward. Naguib placed the bolts of soft cloth in his hands, and also the knives of the Pharaoh. The headman nodded, then passed the cloth to those at his side. Then he drew one of the knives across his skin, breaking open the skin such that red blood ran from his hand. He nodded again then spoke many words that we did not understand, but which pleased all other straw men as they stood beside us. There was laughter as they carried the gifts to the fire. There they placed the gifts upon sleeping mats woven of reeds and leaves. The women knelt to one side, and the men spoke with them, laughing and pointing to the gifts. We could see that all were well pleased.

 

And so it was that we sat cross legged at the fire of the dark skinned men, the smoke rising slowly into the darkening sky, the carcass of a red haired jumping animal baking on the coals, the air filled with the smell of cooking meat and the sharp, strange smell of the dark ones. The straw men sat beside us, their smell strong in our noses, their eyes flashing white in their faces as they hacked pieces of meat from the carcass and passed these to us. The flesh was almost raw, charred by flames on the outside but on the inside red with blood. But it was a fine taste and I ate well, the fat running across my hands and dripping upon my sandals. The straw men watched and nodded their heads with approval.

 

Around me sat my comrades, their eyes watchful, their mouths full. I was careful to follow Naguib’s instructions, that I did not eat until the straw men ate, that I did not drink until they drank, that I did not come too close. And, of course, that I did not stare at the women who brought forth the carcass from the fire. But I still saw their forms as they passed, the soft curves of their hips and the happy curl of their mouths. The women did indeed carry a flattened basket, carved from wood, in which they stored fruits and other foods gathered from the forest. Some fruits were dug from the ground, thick round and lumpen and as large as my hand. These they cast into the coals where they made loud snaps and pops and sizzled in the heat. When they were judged to be ready the women scooped these fruits from the coals with a hardened stick and broke them open with a single stroke, exposing soft golden flesh within, a flesh that warmed and filled the belly. Other fruits were taken from the trees, green and golden and bright as the sun. When broken open the flesh was soft and yellow, and tasted as of the lemons of my mother’s garden.

 

One of the women, one who seemed younger than many, knelt before me and offered me the newly cooked fruit on a wooden basket. As I took the fruit from the basket I saw that her eyes held mine, bright brown eyes filled with mirth, a flash of white teeth against her dark skin, and I felt my heart move as my eyes slid quickly across her soft bosoms and rounded hips. She was indeed a beauty but I was wary and remembered Naguib’s words. At this memory I turned and looked at Isesi and I saw that he stared at the woman with hunger in his eyes. I turned my eyes to the ground and ate the fruit, and prayed to the Gods that I would return safely to the ship.

 

The moon rose in the sky as our new friends threw more timber upon the fire, such that it became a blazing beacon. Then they brought forth many hard sticks, and log of wood, taken from the branch of a tree and hollowed in its length, and began to chant. Many men went into the darkness and returned with strange masks and spears. I felt my skin grow cold but I felt Naguib’s hand on my arm and it steadied me. One of the straw men sat cross-legged in the sand and brought the hollowed branch to his mouth and filled the air with a strange sound that caused my skin to crawl and filled my head with noise. It was as if the bray of a camel but without end. And then this terrible sound was joined by that of hard sticks striking each upon the other. When first I heard the sounds I found them such as to make my head ache, and to bring hurt to my ears, but as I sat and listened with my comrades the sounds began to sooth me, and I felt a deep peace enter my body.

 

As the fire burned brightly and filled the night with sparks and smoke the straw men began to chant. Many stood and stamped their feet in the sand, waving their arms and spears and moving slowly in the flickering light. As I watched I saw a story unfold, a story of men hunting, seeking food, and at last capturing and killing the prey before returning in triumph to their tribe. It was a simple story they told in their music and dance, telling us of their lives. It seemed that time stopped as we watched and listened. The music echoed across the water, bouncing from island to island, the sticks cracked loudly against each other, the men’s feet stamped hard into the sand, the sparks flew bright in the night sky. I was transported as I watched, transported to an ancient time, when the Gods of this distant land of Gond strode the earth, filling the heads of men with dreams and hopes, when the earth was green and rich, when game was abundant, when mighty serpents and other animals crawled across the land. It was as if I dreamed. But this dream was swept away in a moment, thrown into the night by the scream of a woman.

 

  • * *

 

At the cry of the woman my comrades and I climbed quickly to our feet. The straw men threw their masks to the ground, and the sounds of the hollow branch and the cracking sticks fell away. We looked about us but could see little. The circle of light from the fire was large but the shadows beyond were dark as pitch. We heard another soft cry from the trees and a woman fled into the light and threw herself at the feet of the headman of the tribe. It was the young woman that I had looked upon so fondly when she served food before the dance. I could see that there were tears on her cheeks but she did not appear to be harmed.

 

It was then that a stab of cold fear struck my heart and I looked to the darkness. I saw the white flash of eyes and in a moment I knew that Isesi had done wrong, and in so doing, had brought danger to all that travelled with him. In front of us the young woman spoke in sobs to the headman. As she spoke the men muttered to themselves and rattled their spears, and looked towards us. Suddenly the friendship of the banquet and the dance was gone, the wind cold against my skin, the sparks from the fire no longer happy and dancing on the wind but now angry flickers in the night. I knew that we were in great danger.

 

Naguib too felt the anger of the straw men and motioned that we should all move slowly to the dhow. For a moment I felt the cold hand of fear close so tightly around my heart that I could not breath. The dhow was many cubits distant, lying on its side, stranded upon the sand until the next tide. We were trapped, and our weapons were few, only three bronze spears and two hatchets that we had planned to gift to the tribe as we departed. If the straw men chose to attack us now, with our backs to the water and without weapons to defend ourselves, we were doomed. I cursed Isesi in silence. There were times when he was truly a fool, and these times were oft of great humour. But if he had chosen this time to make sport then he had greatly erred. I prayed that I would live at least long enough that I might strike him about the ears and hear him squeal.

 

But as with all moments of passion, when men are intemperate and the blood rises, so it was that the straw men became violent and pursued us through the sand. Our dhow lay at the far end of the beach, not a great distance, but as our feet sank deep into the sand and the straw men screamed at our backs, in the darkness and the flickering light it seemed as if a day’s march. The fear rose in my throat and the skin across my shoulders crawled, for any moment I thought to feel the sharp prick of the spear as it struck me. In that moment I also felt rage and I wished to choke Isesi.

 

We ran through the sand, its soft thickness pulling at our sandals until we came to the hard packed sand at the edge of the waves. As we fled to the dhow there was a scream at my elbow and one of the Nubians fell, coughing blood in the moonlight. It was Douwwi and I stopped to aid him. But the straw men came, and I saw that the spear had passed through his body, and as I watched he shook and trembled and was still. I knew that his spirit had flown. Then another shout from the straw men stirred me and I turned and ran to join my comrades. But yet again the Gods smiled upon us. As the fates would have it, the tide had turned and was at full flood as we fell into the dhow and pushed away from the shore of the island. As we pushed away from the sand I looked back to the fire. The young woman still lay in the sand before the headman but the other men were now gathered at the water’s edge, shouting in their strange tongue and rattling their spears. The Omars drove their paddles deep into the water and turned us from the shore. We felt the waters rise under us, but our dhow moved only slowly, as is made from stone.

 

We heard the headman shout, a shout that was answered by the men at the edge of the water. They ran into the waves and cast their spears, sending them through the darkness like demons that we could not see. I felt one pass my head, so close that it brushed against my shoulder. Two struck the side of the dhow and I heard a scream. Isesi! I looked behind me and saw that the head of the spear had passed through the wooden side of the dhow and through Isesi’s leg.

 

Naguib shouted and the Omars drove their paddles hard into the water. The straw men again cast their spears but this time they fell short. Then I saw one run through the light of the fire with a strangely shaped piece of wood. He stopped at the water’s edge near his fellows and cast the odd shaped wood towards our dhow. I remembered our first landfall and how one of the straw men had cast such a piece of wood toward our ship. And how it had floated out far across the water. But in this darkness I could not see. As I shouted a warning there was a loud noise, as if striking wood against wood, and a muffled cry, and one of the Nubians fell into the well of the dhow. It was not until we returned to the ship and, by the light of a torch, found that he was dead. It was Pasine, his head crushed by the strangely shaped piece of wood. The blood ran freely from his nose and his ears and the side of his head was as if struck by a large club. It was truly a sad and terrible sight.

 

As we knelt on the deck, the other Nubians keening at the feet of their dead comrade, Naguib held the wood in his hand. It was as long as a man’s leg, bent past the mid point and flattened along its length. And it was covered in strange patterns, as if burned by a coal. It was also of great weight, more than a full goatskin said Naguib as he weighed it in his hand. How strong must these straw men be that they can cast something so heavy for such a distance? It was a puzzle said Naguib, because they did not cast the spears even half as far. When Naguib threw the wood to the floor of the dhow I took it and thrust it beneath my legs. Surely it was a strange thing. But something that I wished to know more of. For surely here was a mystery to be solved.

 

It was that night that Naguib decided we would leave on the next morning tide. And that we would sail our ship to the next island and release the Beasts. We would then begin our journey home. But Naguib did not believe we would be safe if we stayed at our mooring off the island of the straw men. And so we hauled our heavy anchor aboard and moved off slowly in the breeze. It was of great danger, that we should sail these unknown waters in darkness, but to stay near the island might place us in danger of attack by the straw men. Truly their boats were small. But still they could carry the straw men, their spears, and their strange flying clubs too near for our comfort.

 

Minkaf and Omar the Centurion knelt below the foredeck, close by the kitchen where Minkaf heated water. Together they removed the spear from Isesi’s leg. Isesi screamed and cursed until his eyes rolled white in his head and he fell senseless to the deck. Minkaf placed a poultice upon the wounds and wrapped Isesi’s leg in a piece of sail. He bound it tight with a leather strap from his sandals. To be sure I did not feel any love for Isesi that night, for he was a toad and he deserved all ill fortune that befell him. How could he place his comrades in such danger? For his deeds two of our Nubian comrades had fallen, among them my good friend Douwwi, his body to lie forever in this strange land so far from his home. I touched my brow and my father’s amulet and whispered a short prayer for my friend. And I swore on the lives of Douwwi and Pasine that I would place my sandal so firmly upon Isesi’s rear end that he would walk with pain for many days.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the sixteenth night of words of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. My father’s eyes are sad this night, for he remembers his friends, fallen so long ago. I, also, am saddened. )

Part XVII – Farewell to Buta

(Here is written the final night of words of the first book of the journal of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Pamu has prepared fine ink and papyrus. Paser sits at the door but Pamu will not speak with him.)

 

We did not sleep that night, our eyes wide and our breath ragged in our throats for fear of attack by the straw men. Naguib sailed our mighty ship back and forth between the island of the straw men, and another island, but a short sail to the north, one blessed with a tall dune that shone in the moonlight like a temple roof. While we ran and hauled the sail on each tack a Nubian hung from the bowsprit, throwing the drop line out in front of our ship and calling the depth of the waters. Thanks be to the Gods that our good fortune continued, for it was a clear night, the moon bright in the sky, the islands dark pools on a silver sea. As long as the mist did not rise we would be safe, sailing back and forth in the passage between. Naguib stood at the tiller with the Nubians, Omar the Centurion by his side. As Naguib steered we ran and hauled the sail. This was not difficult for us to do for the breeze was light, but it was a long night, and err the dawn broke we were tired men. I was glad when the far horizon sprung gold before us and the first rays of the sun touched the tops of the tallest dunes.

 

As the sun rose over the horizon I stood one last time before the Beasts. Only one score remained alive and they were indeed a sorry sight, their once proud eyes dulled by the days and weeks of privation, their hides, once firm and grey and filled with muscle, now loose and lustreless, hanging from their bones like rags. But their eyes still followed me as I moved about the ship, and I saw again the dark intelligence that lurked therein. I felt that they bided their time, waiting with the patience of the Gods, certain that their strength and wiles would prevail.

 

The sun kissed the blue waters at the base of the temple roof island as Naguib guided our ship close by the white sands. We stood off the shore, perhaps three, nay four hundred cubits, in water that was as deep as a man is tall. Beneath us the water was a soft green, the white sand no more than ten cubits beneath our keel, the dark arms of the sea grasses waving beneath the waves. The Nubians cast a small anchor, a large rock tied with hemp, from the foredeck and the rear deck, and Naguib called that our sails be brought down. The Nubians slipped the railing and together we turned the first of the cages. In it lay three of the mighty Beasts, two elder and one young. It was Naguib’s hope by putting the Beasts into the water that they would easily make land fall, for the water was not deep, but yet still be unable to easily attack the ship, for the water would hinder their movements. Naguib was a man of caution and wisdom.

 

The morning sun sparkled across the water as we looked to the golden island, a soft warm breeze touched our backs. So far had we come with the mighty Beasts, and so long had we seen them near, that it seemed our parting was done in haste. Though of course it was not. The sun rose above us, our faces red, our bodies dripping, as we labored beneath it. But our muscles were strong and we worked as one as we pushed the cages to the railing and opened the doors. As each cage was opened the Nubians at the rear pushed at the mighty Beasts with the haft of a spear, driving them forward, towards the island, towards the water, and towards their freedom. The Beasts were weak after so many days and nights within the cages, their muscles shrunken, their hides loose and wrinkled as are the faces of old women, but when they saw their freedom they leapt from the ship to the water in but a moment. Naguib had chosen well, for the water was not so deep that it covered each Beast, yet deep enough as to ensure that the Beast could not attack our ship. Of each Beast we could see only its head as it moved slowly away from our ship.

 

We cast each cage into the water as it was emptied. And as each cage was cast from our ship the Nubians on the rear deck loosed the anchor so that our ship might turn a little on the tide. And so it was that the mighty Beasts left our ship before the sun reached high above our heads, and we watched as they made their way slowly to the island, until at last a full score stood on the white sand. I saw that even now they did not enjoy the bright light and warmth of the sun and that many moved to the shadows of the trees, some drinking from a small watercourse that cut through the sand, others lying motionless. My comrades and I watched and waited. It seemed that something more should take place, something that might mark this moment in time. But of course it did not. For these were but Beasts, and we were but simple men. And so we watched as the Beasts began to climb the tall golden dune, toward the top of the temple roof island. It was then that Naguib called and the Nubians hauled on our anchors and we ran to the sails. It was time.

 

As our ship moved with the wind we saw the islands fall away. I realised the first stage of our great adventure was behind us, that our quest for the land of Gond and the safe delivery of the mighty Beasts was now complete. I looked about me and saw that of our band of four and twenty that set forth from Memphis, less than a score remained. Many of our comrades had fallen, through ill fortune, greed or fear. What now I thought as I gazed at the golden islands on the sea of green. For greater than eight score of days and nights had we been upon the seas. Days and nights that had seen many of my comrades perish. And also many of the Beasts.

 

I thought of my comrades, of Dadsoul, strong and thin, yet only boy when he leapt into the waters near the Pillars of Hercules; of Moeses, strong of brow and sharp of eye, who left us while searching for food on the coast of Maroc; of Mashane, who vanished into the river of pitch, taken by the terrible demon; of my good friend Nabob, a happy man and good of heart, who fell at the hand of Protokei; of Hequaib, and his comrades, Protos, Temsi and Protokei, and how their greed had cost them so dearly; of my Nubian companion Douwwi, a kind and gentle man, and of Pasine, small but strong of heart, who perished for the darkness in Isesi’s soul. And of Isesi, the toad, who lay below on the second deck of our ship, his wounds cleaned and bound, water at his side, his head resting on soft cloth. Good men had died that he might live. I shook my head and looked to the rear deck. Naguib stood at the tiller arm, one hand to his chin, his eyes dark, his mouth hard. I knew that we would speak of this in the days to come, and that Naguib’s judgment would show little mercy.

 

I again muttered a small prayer to the Gods and kissed my amulet. So many days and nights of frozen hell and screaming winds, of hunger and cold and thirst, of fear so thick in my throat that I believed I would choke and die. So much ice. So many storms. And so many lost. And where to now? Did Naguib know our path home? I looked again to the rear deck, where Naguib and Omar stood beside the remaining Nubians. Could they lead us back to our homeland? Like my comrades I had not seen my family for such a long time. Ten moons had passed across the heavens and I had not seen their faces. Or heard their voices. I prayed to Taweret for their health and comfort. I wished to see my parents again, and my brothers. Though their taunts and jokes sometimes hurt me, I wished that I was with them at this time. It is a truth of nature that no matter how dark the heart, still a man will seek for his family. For his true core is set upon this rock. And it will ever be.

 

And so, as the wind blows across our shoulders and fills our sails, as the blue waters roll beneath our mighty ship, as my comrades and I stand at the railing and look to the far horizons, I wonder what will come. How far must we travel? How long must we wait until we see again our loved ones and the shores of our homeland? What perils must we face? For surely if our journey to Gond was filled with such hardship, how could our journey home not also be cursed with danger and fear, with strange lands and even stranger beings? And of course it was. But that is another story, and one that I will tell at another time. For now, I go to visit Nedemeb.

 

  • * *

 

(Here endeth the final night of words of the first book of the journal of Agymah Chahine of Abydos – scribed by Khuyb, Daughter of Agymah, in the City of Memphis in the fourth year of the Ox. Agymah has gone again to visit his friend Nedemeb and has been joined by his son Pamu, and by his brothers, Djosur and Khanefer. Imhotep also has joined them. I have asked that he carry two goatskins of wine and many sweetbreads for they are many, and Habibah should not be burdened with such gluttons. Imhotep has said that my gift is to be revealed this night. We will see.)

 

Now all that read this scroll, perhaps many years hence, will see what I have seen. That my father’s words might sometimes seem confused; that he is forgetful of names, of places and of times; and that much of his story remains yet untold. Forgive my father these small transgressions, for he has seen many years. All will become clear as his tale unfolds. Agymah’s journey has just begun.

 

[Khuyb, daughter of Agymah and Eti
Scribed at my father’s house]


Lion of the Sands

Book I of The Long Journey of Agymah Chahine: A story that spans the ancient globe and filled with danger, adventure, hope, love and loss. It tells of Agymah Chahine, a simple carpenter from the city of Abydos in Ancient Egypt, of his adventures in the Army of the Pharaoh, and of battles with the ferocious Lion of the Sands. The story chronicles the journey of Agymah and his friends from the souqs of Egypt to shores on the far side of the world. It tells of the perils they faced, the dangers they shared, the tragedies they endured and, finally, of their journey home, through a Land of Yellow Peonies, beneath Pavilions of Ice, across Seas of Sand and Blood, and so to their homeland. This is Agymah’s story. "The cohorts ran ten wide, each with twenty men across its front. We moved quickly to the head of the valley and turned as one onto the flat ground between the hillsides. Ahead we could see the boiling dust of the battle and glimpse strange shapes, enormous shapes that seemed to fly through the dust. We saw the flash of weapons in the sun, and heard the roar of the men and the screams as they were destroyed. And for the first time, we heard, louder and more terrible than before, the screams of the Beast. The Centurions shouted, and for a moment the line slowed, then the drums began to beat more quickly and, with a roar of pride and anger, the line surged forward, and in that final moment as the dust cleared, before us opened the maw of hell."

  • ISBN: 9781310985669
  • Author: Robert Sullivan
  • Published: 2015-09-11 08:50:11
  • Words: 49151
Lion of the Sands Lion of the Sands